The Irish north and south can teach Brexit supporters that nationalism is not enough

Times / YouGov results on the Big Debate:

Which side won ? Remain: 34% Leave: 39% Not sure:17%

How will you vote? Remain 41% Leave 40%  Not sure 8%

Never mind the polls. How was it for you on the big stage? Was it about as relevant as the Eurovision Song Contest? More or less fun?  Either way, didn’t they all do well!  And that was the problem. It was a no score draw, both sides shooting and blocking like mad.

So why was there no clear winner?

First lack of trust lies very deep, in politicians, big business, bankers, pundits after the MPs expenses scandal and the banking crash. We are in the middle of a people’s revolt.

People fold their arms, ask troll’s rude questions and challenge the politicians with “ impress me,” knowing, even wanting them to fail. Widespread cynicism is filling the chasm left by the decline of the old class loyalties tied to party. Nowhere more is this true than in the bleak north east of England and in areas like it, where ominously Brexit or indifference seem to prevail.

Most the time the battle was between blue on blue, Tory versus Tory, until  last night. The Remain Tory faction was barely  more enthusiastic about the EU system than Leave. This was an obvious weakness they only clocked at the very last minute.  Most of the time the campaign was about the narcissism of small Tory differences.

In spite of the lies and over stretched interpretations, why no killer facts?

The campaign was fought on shifting sands. Future projections of loss or gain are notoriously fallible. The public know this from the usual party battle.

It was fought on narrow ground.  How much worse/ better off would we be? £4320 a year seems suspiciously precise. If we stopped £350 million/£140 million a week going to “Europe” we could spend it on the NHS” sounds too easy by half. There is a paradox at work here. Our personal finances are terribly important to us. But after a while they begin to pall. Or we get frightened off them in case we discover we’ve made a mess of them all along. When it doesn’t provide easy answers – which is almost never – we look to political debate to distract us from the anxieties of daily life, even lift our sights a little.

Which brings me to the old familiar compulsion, identity politics.  Who are “ we “ in this debate? If “we” are Europe the Leave campaign is narrow minded and selfish. Why should  we not  bung a few billions a year to  eastern European countries which  never ever knew prosperity and democracy before the Fall of the Wall 27 years ago?. In Ireland at least we know the benefits of improving infrastructure and basic services.  I’ve seen swathes of territory in Spain  Portugal and  southern Italy transformed in my lifetime – not to mention southern Ireland. If “we” are European then the Leave arguments are not only selfish but short sighted. For a more prosperous southern and eastern continent means a bigger market to trade with.

Another utterly unexpected change produced this referendum. That was the extent of the rise of English nationalism, affected by ethnic pressures but  resisting outright  racism,  and actually shared by many of the settled non-white  British.

In part but only in part, this is an answer to rampant Scottish nationalism. The most stable polity on earth, untouched by invasion or foreign occupation  for centuries, is in state of quiet but definite flux. The English right are invoking the spirit or Dunkirk 1940 or the Elizabethan  merchant adventurers, both a response, it should be remembered, to the threat of foreign invasion. If there is a threat today it comes from German car imports, not panzers or Spanish galleons.

The UK  – or more accurately GB – is  not immune after all from forces that tore Europe apart for centuries. It’s unlikely that the state of flux has reached its peak whatever the referendum result. The narrowness of the polling shows that saving the  Union  with Scotland is a low priority. The star of the night  Ruth Davidson the leader of the Scottish Conservatives didn’t even  even mention it. The TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady won only tepid applause when she said:

The Irish prime minister has said that if we come out of the EU, there will have to be border controls. And let me tell you, the way that’s seen in Belfast and Derry, I really worry for our future. We should be building bridges between people, not walls.

Ireland north and south have their own different trajectories and may be coming to accept that the appeal of their rival nationalisms has its limitations.  We have surely learned  that our identities, while shaped by it are not completely defined by the nation state. Drawing on the metaphor of the family, our natural relationships are formative. But only by living in the wider world do we find out who we really are. Vote Remain is the healthy thing to do.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • John Collins

    Sorry for being pernickety, but the Wall fell 27 years ago, and not 37. On a broader note if as a ROI citizen I was given the choice to leave or stay I could not decide which side to support.

  • Chingford Man

    It’s not about English “nationalism”, for goodness sake, it’s about sovereignty: the right of people to live under their own laws made through their elected representatives, which includes the right to control their own borders.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Voted Remain, just crossing fingers now. The smart money seems to be on a Remain win, I hope it’s well placed.

    Aditya Chakrabortty had it right on Newsnight last night: this referendum is on an odd issue really and not something the British public were actually that bothered about before the Conservatives forced this on them. Most people don’t have strong feelings either way. What he reported hearing, going around the country (and this chimes with my feel for what’s happening as a ‘public listener’ on the ground myself) was people being angry about lack of school places, an underfunded and stretched to the seams NHS, about their pay going down in real terms over years and years, about working long hours and juggling jobs to get by. Then we have Conservative politicians telling the public this is somehow because of immigration and ultimately the EU. They place before us this vote on the EU, as if that was somehow getting to the nub of what most needs to change to make life better here. Immigration may be an issue but when you realise that immigrants are more than paying their way, the question becomes, why has that money not been used to expand public services accordingly? The reason is that the Tories are not keen to spend on public services.

    What has gone wrong has been an economy hit by the global financial crisis, and then the voters picked the wrong way back when it elected the Coalition and now the Tories. We started growing again way too late and too unevenly under Tory stewardship (2013 rather than 2010) and lost a lot of capacity as a result. The least well off have been disproportionately hit and the recovery has been disproportionately experienced in London and a few big urban hubs, and not elsewhere.

    This has all come about because of the weird Tory belief in austerity, small state and trickle-down economics, in the face of what most macro-economists have been telling them. People are hurting and the Tories have to take a lot of the blame. Instead, they are making out the EU is somehow the big problem. It is absurd.

    The Tories have got themselves and the country in a confused pickle. That is why this referendum is so bizarre and other-worldly. Few people actual genuinely think this is much of an issue.

    We should not even be having this referendum: it has been called to settle an internal Tory party dispute. Cameron, in one of his many irresponsible Flashman moments, went around promising his cadre of swivel-eyed right wing EU-hating backbenchers that he would hold a referendum, in order to keep them onside, expecting in a hung parliament it would never happen. The election went better for the Tories than he calculated. So here we are. It’s all a big Cameron cock-up.

    I voted Remain but I resent that I have been called out to vote due to that man’s irresponsibility and incompetence.