Pause: reflections personal and general during the campaign suspension
The horrific murder of Jo Cox MP, and subsequent suspension of the campaign, has made it a very strange few days for people involved in the referendum debate – especially anybody who has travelled back to the UK specifically to campaign. During this pause for reflection, I have realised a number of things about my own feelings about the debate, and also about immigration as the issue on which the Remain side can never win.
Reflections personal – information and identity
I travelled back from Brussels for my third weekend of campaigning on Thursday evening, but was unable to head down to the West Country due to a derailment outside Paddington. This – although completely mundane – added to the sense of dislocation that Ms Cox’s death was already stirring. With the decision to suspend the campaign through Friday, this meant that the event I was principally travelling for, a panel discussion in my home town of Nailsea, was also cancelled.
On Friday lunchtime I did get to participate in a ‘Question Time’-style event at St Katherine’s School in Pill: although the Labour and UKIP representatives withdrew, the school still felt it was right for a discussion on the issues to go ahead – and the 50 or so students attending were very engaged. As someone who works in the EU political environment on a daily basis, the opportunity to explain aspects of how the EU works to an interested audience was really rewarding: this is what I, specifically, have to offer in the campaign. By contrast, the rapidly hot-under-the-collar approach of “Leave Europe”’s Tim Hagerty was a lesson in how not to read a room.
Later in the afternoon, news came through that the campaign suspension would continue through Saturday, meaning that the street stall in Nailsea that I was planning to join was also cancelled. Although I have joined various local activities recently – Bristol, Portishead, Weston-Super-Mare; each interesting and rewarding in different ways – what I realised with the cancellations in Nailsea was how central in all this activity was the chance to bring back some knowledge and experience to the community I grew up in. With less than a week to go, I have realised the sad extent to which the official campaigns have done next to nothing to inform people about how the EU actually works. By contrast, the conversations that people have initiated with me on public transport (most un-British) as I have travelled between Brussels and Bristol, as well as contacts during street leafleting, have demonstrated the extent to which there is hunger for accurate information on this.
As a migrant worker who has made use of freedom of movement to spend the last seven years working in Brussels, I realise that the EU is part of my identity. I had not realised the way that speaking in my own community was therefore also an opportunity to connect parts of my past with parts of my present: missing this opportunity made it clear. By contrast, a vote to leave will render me feeling in many ways a misfit in my own country.
Reflections general – migration as a historic challenge
“The country is full” is a statement I have heard a few times in conversations with people while I have been leafleting. It’s hard to counter factually – if you think it’s full, the fact that an LSE study claims that EU migrant workers have not reduced wages is unlikely to suddenly persuade you otherwise. And ideas for special funding for areas particularly affected by migration will, of course, take time to implement.
Meanwhile, as a separate but interlinked issue from EU migration, the refugee crisis is the largest movement of people in Europe since the Second World War. This sentence has become a standard feature in any news article on the issue. As a result, it no longer triggers a fresh reaction – but it should.
The Second World War is at the heart of Britain’s national mythology: arguments over whether Churchill would or wouldn’t have supported EU membership are one manifestation of this; England ‘fans’ in Marseille singing songs about German bombers and the RAF are another. Evidently, the Second World War was a BIG DEAL: an agglomeration of events of perhaps unprecedented disruption.
Within Britain, Blitz evacuees were refugees and we welcomed various exiles. But as a power fighting from an island, the UK itself was largely isolated from the way that the war displaced people all across the continent – something I only really realised when reading Mark Mazower’s excellent Dark Continent a couple of years ago. Now, from Syria to Afghanistan to Eritrea to Libya, millions of people on Europe’s periphery are on the move – yet somehow it seems that we think we can escape this affecting our day-to-day lives.
In this historic situation, it shouldn’t be a surprise that politicians, bureaucrats, border guards or aid agencies haven’t figured out a quick-and-easy solution to this challenge: it will take time, good will, and tremendous hard work – all things which, the nation is learning now, Jo Cox was trying to devote to the issue.
The fall of the Soviet Union was also a big deal. The path to integration in the EU for many ex-Communist countries played a major role in ensuring relative stability during that period. If we are seeing migration from that area to Northern and Western Europe now, in a controlled manner in which people broadly integrate into society and may later return to their home country, this is surely preferable to the huge disruption and conflict that could have taken place in the early 90s.
Many have already pointed to the parallels between the ‘Breaking Point’ poster, launched by Nigel Farage on Thursday, and Nazi propaganda. Perhaps a different comparison between migration and the Second World War can help us realise the scale of the issue we are dealing with – and after a vote to Remain on Thursday, galvanise us to deal with.
- Vincent Clay (@mtvc2), 18/6/2016