It's not a great strategy to insult countries you hope to trade with
The case for Brexit as made by its official campaign spokesmen has had two main components, beyond saving money: free of the yoke of EU membership, Britain could form its own trading deals and reduce the number of people immigrating to the country.
By coincidence, these happen to be the two core policies of Donald Trump’s bid for US president. And like Trump, the Leave campaign promises to deliver ‘better deals’ for the British people – but provides little in the way of details.
And, again like Trump, the way Leave has chosen to campaign for their blissful dawn has a central and possibly fatal contradiction. Namely, they are using foreign countries as both stick and carrot, enemy and friend, problem and solution.
Here’s an example. Leave says it wants to be free to trade with countries like the US after Brexit on as good or better terms than is the case now.
But when president Obama came out for a Remain vote, the Leave campaign’s de-facto leader, Boris Johnson, reached into the scuzziest corners of US right-wingery to suggest the ‘part-Kenyan president’ has an ‘ancestral dislike of the British empire’.
Nor was he alone. Almost every Brexiter worth the name denounced the president for meddling in Britain’s affairs and ‘threatening’ its citizens.
(Less surprisingly, UKIP leader Nigel Farage underwrote Johnson’s piece of bigotry, saying: ‘I think Obama, because of his grandfather and Kenya and colonisation, I think Obama bears a bit of a grudge against this country.’) This about a sitting president of an allied country with which they hope to trade after leaving the EU.
Then we have senior Brexiter Michael Gove’s love-hate relationship with Albania – one minute taking it as a post-Leave ‘model’ for Britain and a fellow member of a ‘free trade area’, (both ideas rubbished by the Albanian prime minister), and another as a symbol of mass immigration if Britain stays in the EU.
Move then to the latest example. Discussing European unity over the weekend, Boris Johnson told the Telegraph: ‘Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.’
The idea that Adolf Hitler wanted a united Europe is about as ludicrous as Ken Livingstone saying Hitler was a Zionist. To claim the EU is ‘an attempt’ by ‘different methods’ to do what Hitler wanted to do, or to even imply a comparison between the European Union and the Nazi empire, is obscene, as well as historically illiterate.
Yet his remarks were defended by Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chris Grayling and Norman Lamont, so Leavers can’t shrug this off as ‘silly old Boris’. The Sun newspaper has also backed his comparison. This theme of a German-led EU being a posthumous victory for Kaiser and Führer is pretty standard in the conservative press, which routinely visits bigotry upon Chancellor Merkel.
What we are seeing then is a mainstreaming by the Brexiters of the residual chauvinism of empire. They claim to love Europe, but appear to hate Europeans – the bossy Germans, the shifty French, the profligate Greeks, the uppity Ukrainians, and so on.
It’s hardly a brilliant strategy to insult and defame the people you hope to trade with. Nor are you likely to ‘control immigration’ when you treat your nearest neighbours with contempt.
How did the Leave camp end up in this hole? I think because an honest look at who Britain’s friends and enemies are in and outside Europe would make a decent case for EU membership.
Faced with this unwelcome fact, the Brexiters have to deny and distort reality, placing us in the murky world of right-wing propaganda, where the US president is a tyrant, Vladimir Putin a misunderstood hero of national self-determination, and Europe a crypto-Nazi/Soviet superstate after our precious bodily fluids.
Whether they can sell this to the British people is in some ways less important than their mainstreaming of a poisonous worldview, the effects of which will last beyond this referendum.
Adam Barnett is a staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.