There must be a PR mastermind working in the Vote Leave camp because “Let’s make Britain Great again!” is a very strong slogan. It sounds good, doesn’t it? So powerful, so positive so… just great. However, what has become increasingly clear over the last few weeks is that it is JUST a slogan because what hasn’t been made clear by the Leave campaign is in what way we will be “great” if we leave the EU.
Great is a term being used by Gove, Farage and Johnson to evoke images of a Britain that simply does not exist anymore, if it ever did. It creates feelings of nostalgia for a life that never really existed and never could. For some that life is the white picket fence days when people were friends with their neighbours, children played in the street, everybody knew your name at the local and there was all the cricket. For others, it’s the days when Britain was free to take anyone’s land and resources in the name of the “Empire”. And for a small, bigoted, but growing group of Leave voters “Great Britain” simply means “more white”. Don’t get me wrong, it is not fair or helpful to say that all Brexiters are racist- far from it- but to paraphrase Billy Bragg: all racists will vote to leave.
Of course not all the arguments for leaving the EU are about immigration. Some are about democracy. Do I wish our political system were more democratic? Absolutely. Our first-past-the-post system is hugely flawed. Only 24% of those eligible to vote actually turned up and put a cross next to the Conservative candidate last May. That leaves 76% of registered voters (before you even consider the rest) with a government they haven’t chosen. This is more worrying to me than the fact that the Prime Minister gets to choose the EU commissioners. I would accept the democracy argument had I met a Leave voter who was equally passionate about electoral reform in the UK and who also opposed the Head of State and the House of Lords being unelected.
It is an understatement to say that I am incredibly worried about the mood of the country, from the behaviour of the far-right hooligans singing xenophobic chants in France to the meteoric rise of Nigel Farage and his thinly-veiled racism. The fact that UKIP are no longer a party to be ridiculed but a prospect to be feared is mind blowing to me. How have we let this happen? Fear is winning and it’s breeding hate. Alongside that, there’s the arrogance that of COURSE we’ll be able to negotiate better deals for ourselves once we’re out the EU because we’re Britain- we’re great – who wouldn’t want to work with us after we’ve left in a strop? To the rest of Europe, we must look like a petulant teenager screaming “I’m leaving! You can’t tell me what to do!” whilst the EU quietly recommend air pollution regulations that could save our lives. I’ve never been particularly patriotic but at the moment I feel embarrassed about that fact I’m British. I don’t want to have to make the choice but, if forced to, I’ll choose being an EU citizen over being a British one.
You know what I think would be great? A Britain where the poor aren’t demonised and treated as scapegoats for the country’s problems. What would be great is a country where the interests and wealth of the top 5% weren’t considered more important than those of the 95%. A country where politics isn’t treated as a football match where the winner takes all but as a system that represents the people is serves. What would be really great is a country where MPs aren’t shot for doing their jobs. Or where disabled people don’t starve to death. Or perhaps a country where having a warm, safe home wasn’t treated as an achievement but a basic human right. Of course, David Cameron can’t talk too much about the fact that these issues have nothing to do with EU membership because they have everything to do with his Conservative government.
It’s not the EU we should be bowing out of, it’s the “Global Race”, which appears to me to be a competition to see which country can generate the most wealth for its richest citizens at the cost of the mental health and safety of the rest. Let’s forget being Great with a capital G and let us, instead, focus on making Britain a truly great place to live. A place that celebrates its diversity and is proud to be home to people of all races and religions. In a world that seems to be becoming increasingly hostile let’s set an example for others with our tolerance and compassion. Let’s invest in the people that live here by funding schools, the NHS and public services. Let’s make sure everybody has a place to live. Let’s not believe for one second that the reason Michael Gove wants us out of the EU is so he can finally give more money to public services he has helped destroy. Let’s build a reputation as a country of intelligent, rational people who care about others. Let’s celebrate our nurses, social workers, teachers and doctors rather than shaming them in the media. Let’s be proud that we’re so great that other people want to move here and call our country their home.
Let integration be our focus and the message coming from Britain be this: if you are tolerant, compassionate and believe in equality then there is a place for you in the UK. You will need to contribute and you will need to share our values but you are welcome to make this country your home.
Let’s not kid ourselves Britain, we’re not even great with a lower case g at the moment so let’s focus on that. If we cut ourselves off from the EU we could be left as a very rainy, racist, right-wing bit of an island with a cruel government who will be more powerful than ever before.