In the second article in our Writers Respond series recording artist, performer and political campaigner Billy Bragg offers his view on Brexit.
The result of the EU referendum has shattered Britain’s reputation as a stable, well-governed country. Like cowboy builders who unwittingly take out a supporting wall, the cowboy politicians of the Leave campaign seem caught unawares by the sudden collapse they have caused.
Stumbling around among the rubble, they appear dazed; some are so badly injured they will never stand again. We the people, watching from the doorway, wait nervously for the dust to settle, worried that the damage done will cost us all a fortune to put right.
How did it come to this?
A binary referendum is a blunt tool with which to address the biggest constitutional question of the era. At a general election, parties offer a detailed vision of the future, setting out their plans for the next parliament. Make a mistake and you can correct it five years down the line. A referendum offers no such chance of redemption. You break it, you’ve bought it.
Forced to choose in or out, we’ve sheepishly stumbled into Brexit. But did those who voted to leave have a unified vision of what it would really mean?
The fact that everyone knew what voting to stay would look like was a double-edged sword for the Remain campaign. What should have been a clear argument about the benefits of our continued involvement in the EU was severely tarnished by decades of headlines attacking Brussels on the front pages of the Sun, Mail and Express.
The Leave campaign offered no concrete explanation of what life outside the EU would look like, allowing them to avoid being pinned down by detail.
At the heart of the Leave campaign were a cadre of libertarians for whom facts are just opinions and the truth nothing more than a different perspective. Their shape-shifting allowed voters to load any number of issues onto the Brexit bandwagon. Sovereignty, immigration, housing, NHS funding, red tape, TTIP, straight bananas bring your bugbear to the battlebus and we’ll find time to denounce it.
So eager was David Cameron to rein in his Eurosceptic backbenchers and shoot the UKIP fox that he too was guilty of failing to offer a practical vision of where Britain might go if we left the EU.
Anyone who had given the matter some consideration would surely have designed a referendum that left us in no doubt about what our vote would mean. Rather than a simple binary choice, the ballot paper should have offered the British people three workable alternatives:
1. Remaining in the EU.
2. Leaving the EU but negotiating access to the Single Market with some free movement of people.
3. Leaving the Single Market altogether and no more free movement.
This would have made clear to the electorate that the price for controlling immigration from the EU was our access to the Single Market. Instead, the Leave campaign was able to dismiss as mere opinion any suggestion that this might be the case. Britain was so important to the EU, they assured us, that Brussels would be foolish not to let us have our cake and eat it too.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that the EU regards free movement as a red line, you might think that the Leave voters would take to the streets with the Remainers to protest that they were lied to, demanding that the referendum be re-run. But Leavers don’t have very high expectations of democracy in the first place. A worrying 76% of them are not confident that their leaders will get the best deal from the EU.
They voted to leave because no one listens to what they say. The plans they had for the future have been cast into doubt by events beyond their control. The world is changing and they feel left behind. Can we really blame them for taking the only opportunity they have to let everybody else know what it feels like to be so badly let down?
Billy Bragg has been a tireless recording artist, performer and political campaigner for over thirty years. His albums include his punk-charged debut, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, Don’t Try This at Home, the treatise on national identity timed to coincide with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, England, Half English, and his stripped-down latest, Tooth and Nail. Billy has enjoyed a No. 1 hit single, had a street named after him, been the subject of a South Bank Show, appeared onstage at Wembley Stadium, curated Left Field at Glastonbury, shared spotted dick with a Cabinet Minister in the House of Commons cafeteria, been mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir, and shaken hands with the Queen. At their best, his songs present ‘the perfect Venn diagram between the political and the personal’ (Guardian). Faber published his selected lyrics in A Lover Sings in 2015.