Chris Bickerton writes:
“Chris, with all my respect and admiration, please explain to me how you have found yourself on this same side as these people. I just don’t understand.”
This was the message I received via Twitter last weekend, from a Spanish friend living in Madrid.
He also sent me a link to an article in a Spanish newspaper entitled “Hitler was right”, a quote attributed to a 13-year-old Nigel Farage who – according to an old schoolmate – would berate and taunt his Jewish classmates with these sorts of statements.
I teach politics at the University of Cambridge and have been researching the EU for more than a decade. I have just published a book, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide, which explains what the EU is and what it does, without all the jargon and endless lists of treaties.
I am what we think of as an “EU expert”.
But in contrast to virtually all my colleagues, and all of my neighbours as far as I can tell, I will be voting for Brexit.
In Spain, and in much of Europe, people have a fixed idea of Brexiters: small-minded nationalists, hostile to immigration, reckless and irresponsible.
The pro-EU group set up by the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, made this point as clearly as anyone.
One of its campaign posters read: “If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?”
This is the view of my Spanish friend and so let me answer him.
Brexit is not the property of the political right.
In 1975, in the UK’s first referendum on Europe, one of the ironies of the vote was that the internationalist left was far more solidly against the common market than the typically more chauvinistic and nationalistic right.
Middle-class intellectuals who believed in socialism happily voted to leave, with no sense of being social pariahs.
This is a pretty accurate description of many of my neighbours in Cambridge, who voted to leave in 1975 and will vote to remain tomorrow.
The fact that the loudest leave voices are those of rightwing politicians tells us much more about the trajectory taken by the British left than it does about Brexit itself.
Demoralised by Margaret Thatcher’s electoral supremacy in the 1980s, the British Labour party turned towards both European integration and human rights as new sources of intellectual inspiration and authority.
The party slowly gave up its traditional support for parliamentary sovereignty and replaced it with a more liberal understanding of rights, where constitutional constraints are accepted as legitimate and necessary.
Many other leftwing parties in Europe – such as the French socialists and the Italian communists – did the same.
I believe this was a Faustian pact.
The left traded its commitment to the supremacy of the ballot box for a more nebulous idea of “locking in” good policies through EU laws.
The result has been to give up to the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove the language of democracy and popular sovereignty.
I refuse to do this.
The only guarantee for the policies that we want is to win majorities for them through national elections. There is always the danger of losing the argument but that’s democracy.
Is it irresponsible to vote for Brexit?
Only if you believe that around 50% of Britons are foreigner-hating hooligans.
A UK exit from the EU would reveal how little of our politics is determined by what goes on in Brussels.
Take immigration. I don’t believe immigration numbers will fall after Brexit.
High rates of immigration into Britain are driven by a British growth model that favours expanding the labour force in place of more intensive forms of growth aimed at boosting productivity.
Were the UK to leave the EU, this growth model would persist though the origins of immigrants may change.
The crucial difference is that politicians could no longer blame high rates of immigration on the EU.
We would have to confront it as being at the centre of the British economic model and decide whether this is a model we want to keep.
There is a world of difference between thinking of immigration as something foisted on to the UK by distant Brussels bureaucrats or as the result of a choice about how this country grows and creates wealth.
The latter can only come with Brexit.
A final word to my Spanish friend: this referendum is not a quaintly British affair.
A key theme has been the deep disenchantment voters feel about politics and the contempt they have for politicians, and there is nothing uniquely British about this.
Disenchantment with politics is everywhere in Europe: from Podemos’s attack on la casta in Spain to the successes of the Five Star Movement in Italy.
It unites east with west, and north with south.
The British EU referendum is the tip of a much larger iceberg, a European union of disenchantment.
I believe we can make this into the basis for a new internationalism in Europe, one that gives Europe a political meaning far more profound than the shallow cosmopolitanism that comes with the economic integration of the single market.
A vote for Brexit is also a universal message to all other Europeans that politics can be about change and not just about defending the status quo.