There are two persisting problems with being a soft Leaver. Together they form the baggage which I and other like-minded folk carry around with us. One is the EU's Customs Union, which I will address more fully in a later post, the other is some of the company we keep. Specifically the bigoted and further-Right types who have been energised somewhat by use of the nastier, more populist rhetoric which has laced much of the discourse surrounding Brexit.
For me personally the latter of these two issues has been a consistent weight on my shoulders for quite a long period of time and in some respects I have not done enough to distance myself from it. When I first became interested in the politics of Brexit I was a newly-anointed member of the UK Independence Party, at the stage very much in the Farage corner of debate, captivated by his (undoubted) charisma and positive vision for the outlook of an independent UK.
I don't look back on membership of UKIP fondly. The reason I rarely talk about it or acknowledge it is because I am ashamed of it and wish I had pursued participation in Brexit politics through some other channel. The party itself was structured appallingly and became increasingly inept at internal communication as it grew. Any ground campaigning which took place was slapdash, uncomfortable to be apart of and seldom particularly fruitful. Even in the South East, where I live.
Though lots of its members were more moderate than portrayed in the media, being that they were largely disgruntled former Labour and Tory types, many were more unsavoury round the edges in terms of holding more xenophobic opinions and I regret not challenging that more when I saw it. The sticky truth is that some Brexit voters have simply pulled a lever which they continue to think should result in strict immigration policy on the basis that they do not like foreigners. Whichever way one cuts the issue, this uncomfortable truth does not go away.
Of course, at one point I too favoured pulling in the numbers. I forwarded what I thought was a sound economic case. The argument being: let's pull up the drawbridge and we can protect wages. But the honest truth is that the evidence supporting the claim that immigration reduces wages is spotty at best. On the face of things it is quite incredible that such a widespread claim is so thinly supported by scientific research. And once I clocked this, my outlook swiftly began to change.
Colour of skin or place of birth never moved me. I grew up in an ethnically mixed town parked in the more urban north of Kent. I attended a very diverse partially selective bilateral school which allowed me to mix with individuals from a range of backgrounds, some of whom became (hopefully) lifelong friends and with whom I have travelled to various corners of the world. Judgement of a person is more appropriately placed upon pegs like the content of their character - a lesson I was lucky to learn at a young age.
The reason for the focus on immigration is because this tends to be the major tramline along which soft and hard Leavers diverge from one another. The immigration debate, more than most, is also an arena which attracts the worst sort of people. I am constantly conscious of the fact that I share a side of the ballot paper with people I find unpleasant and distressing and this is a cause of discomfort. There is no remedy which makes me feel better about it.
Sometimes I receive messages from people who tell me that I shouldn't remain on the same side of the fence as those who are overtly xenophobic. I sympathise with the view but I have always responded by arguing that a) unsavoury characters exist in both camps, b) I believe I am well placed to be a more thoughtful and moderate voice this way and c) it only distracts from the question of whether I support EU membership, which has to be the ultimate arbiter of partisanship.
What would Remainers prefer to hear from Leave voices? Well reasoned arguments based on knowledge and research? Or would they prefer for one side to be hollowed out to the extent that they may as well be conversing with brick walls? It seems to me that civilised, intelligent discourse from either side benefits us all. As in any debate, in any arena of politics. Drowning out the bigots matters to me, and if it matters to Leavers then it should matter to Remainers also.
An excellent example of the sort of thing I am talking about came just days ago when Theresa May told the CBI:
"It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi."
This is an immensely upsetting statement which is not only needlessly inflammatory, it is also logically incoherent. I am not best placed to assess the impact that comments like this have on individuals as I am English and my family are English too. We have no immediate familial ties to the continent. I can only try to put myself in the shoes of people who do and who are negatively affected by careless political discourse.
It does not help in any way that such words are spoken by a person at the pinnacle of politics. There is a reason why politicians have speechwriters: the words politicians say matter. They have a fall-through effect on the lives of citizens, and on the political culture in which we attempt any political expression. May is in a position of privilege and power and she should have known better than to (in effect) describe EU migrants as cheats and underhanded.
EU migrants take advantage of rights afforded to them by the political structures built over them. British citizens abroad have too. Steve Bullock made the excellent counterfactual point on Twitter when he asked what the reaction would be here if EU brass made similar comments about UK expats. He makes an interesting point. What would the reaction be? I'd bet that quite a lot of the noisier hardliners would have a thing or two to say about it. But then again we should be used to Brexit ironies by now.
As far as policy is concerned, the British government could at any point decide to replicate our immigration policy with the EU and apply it to third countries. Politically unpopular though it might be, it is legally and logistically possible and thus undermines any logical basis for condemnation of what is being called 'queue jumping'. If we were to create an equilibrium amongst potential migrants, theoretically speaking there would not be a queue to jump.
Needless to say I am therefore compelled to condemn the language used by the Prime Minister about EU migrants. It might not mean much to anybody, and sure I will still be accused of aiding and emboldening the sort of behaviour sometimes seen on my side of the argument, but I can only set a more preferable example and criticise what I see as wrong where I see it. It's tough, though. For how long I can stomach it remains unknown.