Easy answers have won the day

Matt Hemsley says the failure to tackle arguments around globalisation and immigration in the past have culminated in the attitudes seen in the EU referendum campaign.

I woke at about 3.30am on Friday – awoken by a text from a friend alerting me to the impending result of the referendum. As someone who was certain to vote Remain, within an hour the nightmare had been confirmed. I’ve largely felt miserable since, seriously toying with emigrating, and watching the post-referendum farce take place. The sickening displays of racism across Britain over the last few days shows that racists in Britain think the result now makes their views acceptable.

On Thursday, I’d placed a bet on Wales to vote Leave in the referendum. This was partly fuelled by friends involved in campaigning, but in part based on the Assembly election result in early May (with seven UKIP elected). I told a few people about my bet – many also wagered, many in Wales told me “there was no chance Wales could vote Leave – we get so much money from the EU”. For me, that lazy response sums up much about how out of touch swathes of the population across the UK feel.

I have long felt that political debate in Britain is appalling and that we have too few politicians at any level willing to stand up for and clearly explain policies that, while perceived as unpopular, would be the right way forward. Take Inheritance Tax. This should be an incredibly popular tax (as far as those things go) – ensuring that unearned wealth does not keep the rich rich. Instead, even those with no chance of being impacted call for it to be scrapped, or the threshold raised. There should have been uproar when the latter actually happened; instead there was silence. Yet if we care about sharing the proceeds of a growing economy more fairly, and ensuring a greater equality of opportunity for the next generation, then taxing that unearned wealth is so much more effective and correct than – for example – introducing yet another income tax band at the top end. Yet, that is all that is talked about.

I use this as an example to talk about why I think many have voted Leave to stick two-fingers up at the establishment.

As a small-l liberal I am a supporter of free trade, global capitalism, free movement of people and globalisation. Yet these are all complex concepts that come with an amount of in-built uncertainty – that has to exist for these systems to fully function. The system exists on imperfections (Gregg Easterbook explains it very well in his book, Sonicboom).

When times were good (towards the late 90s and through most of the 00s) we should have been explaining the benefits of these forces. In Britain, immigration was an issue for many, especially the white working classes. I know this from the experience of the town in East Dorset where I grew up. Discussion of ‘too many immigrants’ was rife, even though our town and wider area had basically none. Yet, things were generally ok and these concerns were explained away either as racism (which for most it isn’t) or deemed unimportant. At no point was there a concerted effort to explain the benefits of immigration and the free movement of people in the EU. That immigration, especially from Europe, brings skilled people here who create jobs and fund our public services, not claim benefits and ‘steal our jobs’. It’s a tough argument to make, but when times were good it was the time to be making it, to be winning people over.

So, when times became tougher during and immediately following recession, it was no surprise that these views remained. No argument had been won over immigration (let alone globalisation) – it had bubbled under the surface while people generally felt their lives were ok. Now, times were tough and there was something to blame. The political establishment seemed surprised by the whole thing.

Over the last few years, each party has had its own difficulties. The Conservatives can’t seem to marry up their support for free markets with the necessary need for free movement of labour, instead it conflicts with their small-c conservatism and wish to preserve. Labour is in the biggest mess, conflicted between the desires to be welcoming to all and protecting the working classes. They’ve never been able to provide an answer – the amount of times I hear Labour politicians starting an answer with “of course immigration is an issue, we understand that, it is a serious concern” while then taking no actual action (I guess because, inside, the knew they shouldn’t) should make it blindingly obvious why people feel fobbed off.

The Lib Dems, while being the most pro-immigration, spend too much time campaigning on local, mainly NIMBY, issues, rather than championing liberalism on a global and national level. Rarely have Lib Dems sought to convince people to vote for them on the broader ideology, preferring the comfort blanket of grass verges and opposing housing developments (ironically preventing the building of much needed housing stock that leads to people being able to claim we don’t have enough room for immigrants).

Our political discourse is now in a dark place. Hypocrisy and populism are the preferred campaigning and rhetorical tools of Cllrs, MPs and those in devolved legislatures. Even more concerning, voters are voting for these qualities – including many who would claim not to be. Politicians who take more principled stances are campaigned against, but other parties, voters and even those within their parties. Easy answers have won the day.

If we are to defend liberal values, it is incumbent on us to speak up about them if we are to win the day. Since more nations have become open, trading nations we have significantly reduced global poverty. Capitalism has brought new ideas, improved services and lowered prices. None of this is to deny there aren’t problems with the system. Too much wealth still sits with too few. We failed to properly regulate our financial industries – in part because many have forgotten that an effective system relies on competition, not on preserving monoliths that won’t reform. We seem no closer to having politicians that understand this – the arrival of Uber has led to politicians who supposedly support competition and markets seemingly keen to improve restrictions on new entrants and support the status quo.

Perhaps our political parties are no longer fit for purpose – with each having their own internal conflicts, there are now many alliances across party lines. To me, more importantly, our political discourse needs to become better and more truthful. If there is to be a snap election, I fear yet again that populists and hypocrites will win seats. Their easy answers will be applauded by their activists and voters. Those defending complexities, making it clear that things aren’t black and white, will lose out – probably not even selected by their parties in the first place.

The political classes have got us into this mess. They will need to change if they are to get us out of it.

Matt Hemsley writes this in a personal capacity.

13 thoughts on “Easy answers have won the day

  1. Yes, the easy answers won and the complex realities were insufficiently explained. Both sides lied. The brexit side on the economy and the remainers on immigration. Those defending the status quo either denied that immigration was an issue or else strongly implied that any concerns were due to racism and/or stupidity. Insulting and patronizing your potential support isnt a good electoral tactic.
    I am afraid Matt also slips into this . A populist is someone I disagree with but who most people dont.
    I cannot see what the alternative to globalisation is but it doesnt benefit everyone. Those that have been left behind have spoken.

  2. How hypocritical of Mr Hemsley to accuse those who campaigned for a “leave vote of being racist while at the same time boasting of having bet on such a result for personal financial gain! Dare I suggest it echoes the attitude of the Cmmissioners
    I have one daughter in law born in China and another in Hungary there is no way I am a racist.I campaigned for a ‘ Leave ” vote in the desire to ensure that we can control & reduce the number of immigrants coming to Britain , we shouldn’t allow unskilled E.U. immigrants to come here instead of selecting immigrants with the skills which Britain needs from other areas of the world.
    Neither Do I believe the dire long term warnings about trade of the “IN Camp.” I believe that we can now use our new trading opportunities to increase our trade with the rest of the world instead of being shackled to the dying E.U.economy.
    Your correspondent talks about free Trade without appearing to recognise that the E.U. is the epitome of Trade restriction. The money Mr Hemsley writes about The E.U.giving Britain, is only a proportion of our own subscription redistributed as it deems best. I believe every £ should be returned at first as increased amounts to those areas receiving it a present.
    Rejoice! “Good times are just around the corner”

  3. So everyone who voted to leave-myself included, are racists?
    After reading this in the very first sentence I will not read the long biased remainder.
    The writer not only seems to not believe in democracy but attacks those who wanted OUT!
    This is what I call a second-rate mind, if not a third.

  4. What is sovereignty to someone in Ebbw Vale? They always vote Labour but the complexion of the UK government is decided by voters in marginal English seats. They don’t choose the Westminster government and can’t throw it out, whatever it does to them. Moreover if they are Welsh they haven’t enjoyed national sovereignty since the defeat of Owen Glyndwr in 1415.
    Are they worried about immigrants? Well they are all descendants of immigrants since the valleys were empty before the coal boom of the 19th century. And there hasn’t been immigration on any scale there since 1913. The few immigrants now are a handful of Asian shopkeepers and perhaps a few GPs.
    Money? EU structural funds have pumped tens of millions into the valleys. There is no realistic prospect that a Conservative UK government would have matched those transfers. Wales as a whole is a net recipient of funds from the EU and leaving will make Wales worse off, even without any adverse effects on the UK economy as a whole.
    So what can you say about an ‘out’ vote in Ebbw Vale and other valley towns? What did people think they were doing? I take an unfashionable view. People didn’t know what they were doing. The vote was an emotional spasm. Does that mean it should be ignored? No. Let people reap the consequences of their actions. As the old song put it: you had your way; now you must pay.
    Mr Peter Davies will find it is a long way to that corner.

  5. Although we probably voted for opposite sides on Thursday, Jon Owen Jones sums up the situation quite accurately in his moderate and sensible comment.

    Both sides twisted the truth appallingly, but while, on the one side, this took the form of threatening the voters and insulting them, on the other side it took the form of simply telling them whatever they wanted to hear.

    Under these circumstances, those who prided themselves on their own cleverness – and mocked their opponents for their supposed stupidity – should, if they really were clever, have been able to predict which side the voters would find more appealing.

  6. Looking beyond the narrow arguments as to whether this is good for the UK, or any part of it, surely it is not good for countries like Italy, Spain, Greece and Croatia to have 40 – 50% youth unemployment? And for many of these countries and especially the poorer ones, to also lose their brightest and best people to emigration and to suffer depopulation as a result?

  7. Now the dust has settled a bit, I think we can expect a very different slant on politics going forward. The younger generations who were disinterested or disenfranchised with politics perhaps, have started to stir and I don’t think that this will simply dissipate. I have been watching the storm on social media and listening to Radio one and the voices from Glastonbury and there is an awakening and gross disapointment and almost an anger in the younger generations, that I have not seen for quite some time.

    We perhaps have to focus on these people now, many of whom have lost respect for their parents and grandparents. Many are viewing their elders as people who voted quite selfishly against their interests and their future prosperity and prospects. Fear of immigration is stronger in the older generations and in areas where there is little immigration. Today we are constantly hearing people saying I am not racist and justifying their views and positions, by saying that things had just gone too far and we need to reign things back and make sure our country doesn’t change beyond recognition.

    The fact is the world is changing and whatever happens next, immigration is not going to reduce, because we need it economically and dare I say culturally, in order to be able to relate to the world we now live in. Some will and do say, we need a points system and only get the selected best to come here – well I believe we need a whole mix of people in this country going forward, more than just giving special treatment to a few extra doctors and nurses. We need to encourage the youth from Europe and around the world who understand the global world that we now live in.

    We can’t build a wall and we shouldn’t. I think the succesful political parties going forward will be the ones that recognise that the under 40s are predominantly up for that and don’t share the same fears of their now much less repected elders. I myself am now part of the older generations and I find the lack of thought that we have given to our upcoming generations something quite upsetting to say the least. Thie problems we are now going to face are things that we can’t readily blame on our youth or on education.

  8. The charge that those on the Remain side lied doesn’t hold water. Less than a week on their warnings have come true and the Leave side have gone into hiding after retracting all of their ‘promises’. I agree that populism has prevented politicians from telling the public when they are wrong.

    Voting leave was a hugely irresponsible thing to do. People might be offended by that, but it doesn’t make it untrue. 5, 10, 15 years from now the leave voters who are still alive may come to terms with their mistake.

    But the challenge now is for the Remainers to save Britain. As we have seen, the Leave camp have no plan. They have no vision for the UK out of the EU. Even Boris’ plan sees us paying into the EU, accepting all their laws and loosing all control. Only the Remainers are left to prevent where madness has taken us.

  9. This is sound analysis.

    The elements of the blog relating to politicians failing to make the case for potentially unpopular things – instead opting for safe ground – are particularly pertinent.

  10. Thanks for the comments. I’m not quite sure how to respond to the people who claim I think everyone who voted Leave is racist when I didn’t (and indeed later on in the piece say isn’t true)….but then if you aren’t going to read beyond the first paragraph.

    These are incredibly complex issues. I admit in my thoughts that I am a small-l liberal. There will, of course, be those who aren’t and therefore are less minded to defend some of those values. However, I think they are worth defending, as overall they have led to a better world. Yes, absolutely some people have been left behind – however, my view is that it is not the entire order that is wrong, we must always look to make it work better. For example, in or out the EU, the UK is already a more service-based economy – but how does that properly transition from an economy with significant manufacturing. Many US states and cities have the same issue. But I don’t think any shift to greater state-planning is the answer.

    Also, I think both sides of the official campaign were crap….but my point is that for at least 10-15 years our political debate has been below par. That is not just the fault of politicians – although they obviously have to shoulder a significant part of the blame. I mean – how many parties have really tried to talk about the benefits of immigration to people in the Welsh valleys, for example?

    There are serious challenges ahead.

  11. Welshperson; I voted remain because I believe in the economic case. In making that case they told the truth and the outers lied. But the remainers lied about immigration. Either in denying its importance or by arguing that it was entirely the product of racism or ignorance. Matt cannot see that telling people that they do not understand its benefits is patronizing.

  12. It’s not about telling people they “don’t understand it’s benefits”, it’s about being willing to talk about the benefits. Too few have. If you leave a void there, then only one side of the argument will be heard.

  13. OK Matt you certainly dont intend to be patronizing and maybe your not. You are also quite right in saying that the benefits of immigration have rarely been discussed. Neither have the dis-benefits (except by parts of the print media). A huge social experiment has been conducted during the last decade in which millions of people have moved into Britain. Labour governments and Tory governments have largely avoided discussing the impacts and have certainly not obtained a civic consensus in favour of this change. Of course there are both good effects and bad and they effect groups of people differently. Globalisation is both a threat and an opportunity but its much more likely to be the latter if you are well educated. In excess of 75% of the population believe the current level of immigration is too high. A democracy has to take account of the views of its people.

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