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by Henry McLeish
19 February 2016
EU referendum: The In Campaign must make the patriotic case for Europe

EU referendum: The In Campaign must make the patriotic case for Europe

Extreme Euroscepticism is dangerous, divisive and potentially destructive to Britain’s future. Aided in their intent by right-wing leaning newspapers and organisations such as the Churchill Society and Civitas, this conspiracy to remove Britain from the EU should not be underestimated. Anti-EU forces have been at work for 40 years.

Unquestionably, the EU is complex. Political literacy is underdeveloped in Britain. The brexit supporters are vocal and passionate. Their narrative is simple and plausible but deeply flawed and dishonest. Advocacy of the remarkable achievements and benefits of EU membership has been mooted but, at best, is ambivalent. The campaign to keep Britain in the EU, therefore, has to be stepped up.

I do not believe that Britain will leave the EU, but as David Cameron deals with his own party’s civil war, the public remains disillusioned with politics, and much of the press is distorting and damaging the EU’s work, anything is possible. Much will now depend on the energy, focus and passion of those who believe our future is in the EU. 


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The UKIP leadership and the extreme elements of the Conservative Party in Westminster and in England are hiding behind a plausible but dishonest narrative: that the EU has stripped away our sovereignty, is undemocratic, bureaucratic, secretive and unaccountable; that all our ills are the fault of migrants, refugees, Muslims and Eastern European benefit tourists, who are simultaneously stealing all our jobs; and underpinned by a barely concealed hostility to foreigners, especially the French and Germans, who are the ringleaders in the EU’s drive towards a federal state.

This is then packaged with a generous helping of insidious English nationalism, a dash of exceptionalism and a hint of the isolationism to come if brexit succeeded.

For the extremists in brexit, the debate is really about politics. Why do so many Tory eurosceptics and UKIP leaders hate the EU? The answer lies in protecting the free market, clinging to the so-called special relationship with the US, a deepening indifference and hostility to migrants and refugees, and a refusal to accept that Britain no longer rules the waves. For the ultras, Britain has an identity crisis which has to be tackled by recreating the past not building a new future.

Margaret Thatcher, in her Bruges speech in September 1988, said: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” These views remain strong in the Tory party today.

Many Conservative MPs at Westminster, Tory activists in England and the UKIP leadership despise the EU, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Convention, and have little regard for the Council of Europe. Why is this so? Why is Britain – or is it England – the exception? Does Germany feel any less of a successful interdependent nation state for taking the EU seriously and sharing sovereignty in areas of shared interest and ambition? For the populists and Tory right-wingers, superficially, this is a struggle to protect our national interest and the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. But this ignores the reality that Westminster sovereignty has been ceded to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the EU, the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights and in each of the eight referendums when direct power was ceded to the people. So this all contradicts this archaic thinking.

But fed these distortions, lies and vitriol over the past 40 years, no wonder the public have so little information, knowledge and hope upon which to make historic decisions about Britain’s future membership in the EU. The heart, however, is the home of narratives that arouse the emotions and touch the soul. Compelling narratives are more important in politics than are facts, policies, or information. In politics, the side with the best stories can gain the upper hand. The Eurosceptics are dangerous - they have no case but purvey a very plausible con.

Van Jones, a former adviser to Barack Obama, used the term “cheap patriotism” to describe those political leaders who apparently love their country but end up “waging war against most of the groups in it and seem to drool over the past while they stir up grudge and grievance politics and often much worse, without offering anything positive in response”.

He talks about ‘deep patriotism’ to describe people who love their country for all of the right reasons and in the process they don’t leave anyone out, including immigrants or people on welfare or foreigners. No one is excluded. No one is scapegoated for the benefit of the many.

For decades, the British ultra right has tried to monopolise patriotism and pride and fought against inclusivity, diversity and compassion. The populist leaders of UKIP and the Conservative right are ‘cheap patriots’. They are doing enormous damage to the country and staking out a future that lacks moral purpose, a bigger ambition and thrives on division and exclusion.

Britain needs an alternative narrative, one in which a narrow form of cheap patriotism is contested and defeated.

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