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.

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