EU referendum (left to right): John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel
EU Leavers (left to right): John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel © PA

The man who runs the National Health Service said on Sunday that a British exit from the EU would disrupt his work. Simon Stevens is now, according to Leavers with no prior interest in him, a government stooge and proven administrative klutz.

There is bespoke invective for any third party who speaks against their cause, always on the theme of elite collusion. The governor of the Bank of England? Goldman Sachs puppet. Big business? Gluttons at the trough. As for the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, she was put up to it by Treasury back-scratchers. No one, in this desert of goodwill, is credited with sincerity.

Leavers had better win next month’s referendum. They have peddled too dark a view of how Britain is run to slide back into public life with a straight face after defeat. What minister could serve a state he says is a racket? How can a commentator appraise week-by-week politics if the whole superstructure is rigged? Still, watch them do it. Only a few Leavers are credulous conspiracy theorists who squirrel away tinned food and think bitcoin, that Esperanto of currencies, will take off any day now. Most just use anti-elitism as a tactic to mobilise voters. The insincerity is all theirs.

And so, when you think about it, is the elitism. A Treasury report puts the short-term cost of exit at 3.6 per cent or more of gross domestic product. When such forecasts are made, Leave’s technical rebuttal is less telling than its indifference to whatever smaller setbacks it concedes would occur.

With noble candour, some admit that exit would bring a quick downturn and, perhaps, marginally slower long-term growth. When a survey by the CBI, the employers’ organisation, said the economy by 2030 would be a few percentage points smaller outside the EU than in, it was taken as proof of the trifles at stake.

Call this what it is: elitism. People who work in and around politics are mostly screened from the vicissitudes of the economy. An MP, peer, adviser, columnist or think-tanker has job security and, if it fails, an escape hatch to the public relations sector. In Westminster, the crash did not happen. Any post-exit recession would not happen there either. There is something of the gung-ho general billeted miles from the frontline in the Leave campaign’s untroubled contemplation of an economic downturn. Insouciance is a rich man’s privilege.

For the rest of the country, small movements in economic output translate into jobs lost or created, pay rises given or withheld. Not everybody lives on that margin but most people know someone who does. Leavers have half a point about the Remain firmament. It really is a mountain range of dignitaries and industrialists. But being of the elite is not prima facie evidence of elitism. It is not Ms Lagarde or the CBI who seem happy to brook a short sharp shock to the economy as the tactical price of a loftier cause. It is not the Davos crowd who talk of a slightly smaller economy in 14 years’ time as a near-victimless outcome. (Which, given the rising population, it certainly would not be.)

What damns the Leavers is not their belief that the Treasury forecast is wrong. It is the hint they give off that they do not really mind if it is right. They can live with a recession if they must. If others cannot, well, nobody said the path to freedom is lined with cherry blossom. Their nonchalance is all the worse for their pose as underdog yeomen, a droll routine that has cabinet members and an Etonian former mayor of London deploring the “establishment”, presumably while buffing each other’s brass necks.

As a picture of decadence, politicos who cannot lose their jobs shrugging at percentage points of GDP here and there will stick in the mind. Mostly drawn from the right, they resemble nothing so much as the rich Londoners who voted for the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader because “winning isn’t everything”. If you are poor enough to taste government policy, winning elections really is everything. If your next contract hinges on economic calm, a downturn this year is not just a detour on the way to national destiny.

There is a class of people in politics for the frisson of belief, for communion with the like-minded, for anything but the tedious amelioration of material life for most people. There are Remainers who think household finances too tawdry a theme for a campaign that should major on European civilisation and the epic sweep of history.

But many more Leavers think like this. For them, economics is a vulgar reason to support a political proposition, even theirs. Principle trumps all. They say it because they can afford to.

Letter in response to this column:

Selfish stance on Brexit is seen on both sides / From Gordon Bonnyman

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