It should not have taken the unspeakable killing of a Member of Parliament to remind us that the passions driving the EU debate are not really about economics. That side of the argument is a no-brainer.
Though Michael Gove, justice secretary and leading Leave campaigner, asserts that “the British people are sick of experts” the consensus of economists — not to mention the heads of the Bank of England, the Trades Union Congress, and the International Monetary Fund — is that Brexit will wreak short-term devastation and long-term shrinkage on the economy. Capital flight, a collapsing currency, a vacuum of government and the drying up of research funds for science are not the fantasies of fearmongers but imminent realities.
Britain will be locked out of the single market unless it pays almost all that we currently remit and accepts freedom of movement. Among Brexit’s meagre team of economists, Patrick Minford has airily declared that leaving the EU will “mostly eliminate manufacturing”. So when heading straight for the iceberg it is possible that a shot of dismay may not be such a terrible idea.
On any rational calculation, Remain would have a result. But the campaign is not driven by reason but by emotion. Nor is it really about democracy, despite all the misleading platitudes about rule by “faceless bureaucrats”. Most of the arguments about the unelected are uninformed by even a passing acquaintance with the way the institutions of the EU actually work. The commission proposes, but nothing can be enacted except by the decision of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the latter composed of representatives of the elected governments of member states.
No, the hot buttons of sovereignty and immigration are two sides of the same consuming question: who are we? Are we a homogeneous or a heterogeneous nation? Is our history and our institutions, entirely exceptional, born and shaped by our insularity; have we always been and ought always to remain offshore?
In some version or other, the “who are we?” question has become the rabid fever of our times. The demonisation of immigrants was the kick-starter of Donald Trump’s incendiary campaign. But lately he may have run up against the defining truism of American exceptionalism, first set out by the French-born writer Hector St Jean de Crèvecoeur in Letters from an American Farmer (1782): that Americans can be anyone from anywhere as long as they subscribe to the democratic idea.
Chauvinism and the most narrowly nativist definition of the nation are agitating popular furies in Russia, Austria, Hungary and France, where Marine Le Pen looks to be the next president. Surfing the moral sewer, the UK Independence party’s latest poster, smugly unveiled by its leader Nigel Farage, features the slogan “Breaking Point” next to a crowd of desperate refugees. It is an image of unforgettable malignancy which will make anyone with a heart immediately want to spend time in their, rather than his, company.
There is no deep mystery as to why all this is happening. Even as the world enjoys the benefits of globalisation: unprecedented free movement of goods, people and ideas; the unbounded cyber space of the internet, so it also recoils against those very same things on the realisation that they don’t guarantee prosperity or happiness. An immune reaction kicks in, in which psychological and physical defences are mobilised against people stigmatised as alien, dangerous, and unassimilable. It is easier to blame the thousand ills on migrants than to see them as the result of systemic changes in economy and society.
In Britain this has happened before. The influx of around 100,000 impoverished Jews fleeing persecution and destitution in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century triggered the creation of the British Brothers’ League which characterised the immigrants as “the scum of Europe”. The Jews were demonised as diseased, dangerous, unable to speak English, taking jobs from honest British workers and driving down wages. Their membership was about the same as Ukip’s — 50,000 — but they too panicked the Conservative party into defensive reaction. Parliament passed the Aliens Act of 1905, restricting their entry. The Liberal party, which had opposed the measure, naturally maintained it once it was in government.
In 1934, with the possibility of migrants coming from Hitler’s Reich, The Daily Mail urged readers to “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand”. In 1968 Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech warned of civil unrest unless Commonwealth immigration was stopped.
All these blustering defenders of the island kingdom against the oncoming tide of foreigners imagined themselves to be sustaining and protecting the inherited purity of British institutions and history. But those institutions have been anything but insular in their origins and character. Look at the names of the 25 barons who obliged King John to sign the Magna Carta and you will see that the vast majority were Norman French; the language spoken almost exclusively by the Angevin kings. The Bill of Rights of 1689 which established, irreversibly as it turned out, our constitutional monarchy, only came about as the result of a Dutch invasion, which for 18 months quartered 20,000 troops in London. The ex post facto justification was that William of Orange had been “invited” by a circle of Whig aristocrats. But the truth was that William was coming to England, invitation or not, since the life or death of the Dutch Republic depended on Britain joining the struggles against Louis XIV.
The Bill of Rights was the product of our being pulled into a European coalition committed to resisting the absolutism which just four years earlier had made Protestantism illegal in France.
Britain was the beneficiary of that act of intolerance. Some 50,000 Huguenots, among them Mr Farage’s ancestors, resettled in Spitalfields, to the enduring benefit of the country. Two centuries later the Jews in much greater plight and numbers occupied those same streets. My grandparents moved into Fieldgate Street, once the home of Huguenot silk weavers. In the 1960s my mother, then working in Whitechapel and Stepney, welcomed the next wave of Bengali immigrants; one of whom, she enjoyed telling people, rose to be head cook at Bloom’s kosher salt beef restaurant.
At this point of course Boris Johnson, Mr Gove, Mr Farage and the Brexiters shout “This is nothing to do with the EU”, bang their tin drums and strike up the “unaccountable Brussels bureaucrat” chorus; chanting the £350m-a -week whopper.
But as they well know, immigration allergy is the open secret of its mass appeal. Mr Farage’s poster was just the giveaway. The choice next Thursday is between an open or a closed Britain; between an outward facing or an inward-facing one; between the past and the future, which is why the vast majority of the under-25s want to Remain. The mantra that we will be liberated from Europe to go out into the world is a disingenuous fantasy. The WTO makes agreements through the EU. There will be no special deal for the UK. We will be back of the queue. We will not be reclaiming our sovereignty; we will simply be alone.
If, finally, I invoke the memory of Jo Cox, it is not to exploit her death but to honour her morally magnificent and cruelly ended life. She was as homegrown Yorkshire as you could get. But she understood with instinctive decency that to be British was also to be a citizen of the wider world including Europe; that the two identities were mutually sustaining not mutually exclusive; that no man is an island.
She was the impassioned champion of the Syrian people, tormented and uprooted by their unrelenting war. Her maiden speech said it all: “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration . . . what surprises me time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more things in common with each other than things which divides us.”
She was, she said, a celebrant of diversity. And that, too, is what makes our country a United Kingdom.
The writer is an FT contributing editor