Before Voting, Consider What Trump and the Leavers Share

22/06/2016 16:49

Watching the rise of Donald Trump while peering nervously over the Atlantic to watch the EU referendum unfold in my homeland, it has been hard to escape the feeling that they represent two different versions of the same phenomenon. The Leavers may be more genteel than the Donald, but they spring from the same poisoned well. Whatever their claims to the contrary, they are selling the same politics of division and mendacity - just on different sides of the pond. The time has come to decide whether you support this politics or not. No Leave supporter turning out to vote or Remain voter not bothering to do so has any excuse for what they will be allowing to happen.

The Leave camp will tell us they do not stand for division. Instead, they assure us, they are "globalists". They want simply to remove us from the shackles of the European Union so that they can broaden our collective horizons. Scratch the surface of a Little Englander and you will reportedly find Marco Polo. Once the dead hand of the bureaucrats in Brussels is removed from our economy, our trade with the rest of the world will flourish; and by the way, the Europeans will just roll over and give us everything we want, too. It's so simple that all we can do is marvel at the fact no-one thought to do it sooner.

If you think that removing us from the largest free market in the world seems a strange way to begin an export-led boom and foster a new politics of global inclusivity, you would be right. Look beyond these claims to what the Leave campaign actually wants to do and the rhetoric it uses to support it, and you see hints of a darker truth. Listen to them demur that in the last analysis it doesn't matter if the economy takes a hit for the sake of restoring "sovereignty" and immigration controls, and the truth becomes yet clearer. See them echo Donald Trump's rhetoric, and it becomes unmistakeable.

What unites both Trump and the Leavers is an essentially zero-sum view of global economics and politics in which their countries are not getting a fair shake. Foreigners, of course, are to blame. Trump has described Mexico as "an enemy nation", and Brexiteers have warned of the danger posed by "ze Germans". In a strange inversion of the post-Cold War optimism that greater trade would lead to peace and harmony throughout the world, the culprits often seem to be our closest allies. The Brexiteers stir us to battle against them.

An attempt to return Europe to a primordial state of nature in which each nation must battle anew to secure its livelihood and rights might seem worthwhile if it promised vast rewards. But it does not. The twin delusions on which the expectation of these rewards are based - that we will get everything we want in a "deal" with Europe and that non-European trade will skyrocket - quickly wither under analysis.

Brexiteers are fond of talking about national interests and of citing the role Germany will play in ensuring we get what we want from the EU after we leave, so let us consider Germany's national interest. According to the Leave campaign, Germany is so dependent on trade with the UK that it will ensure a quick, painless transition to a sort of à la carte status for the UK in Europe in which we get all the benefits of the free market but none of the perceived drawbacks of free movement. What this completely fails to acknowledge is that Germany has a far greater interest in holding the EU and the euro together than it does in keeping tariffs off its relatively insignificant trade with us.

When the Leave campaign reduces Germany's national interest down to the size of its trade surplus with the UK, it displays a mind-bogglingly narrow-minded worldview which alone ought to make us question their judgement on every other issue. Germany will be devastated to see us go, but will immediately turn to stem the damage to the rest of the EU after we do. Encouraging members to leave and then negotiate their own à la carte deals would serve the opposite interest. Presumably even the most pugnacious booster of John Bull recognises that the euro is more important to the German economy than selling cars to the UK. Any German politician who did not leverage the UK's overall much greater dependence on EU trade into a terrible deal for London would be guilty of professional negligence - especially given how desperate our post-Brexit government will be to secure a deal amid the twin sterling and fiscal crises that will inevitably follow.

Then take the supposed rewards of boosting non-European trade after Brexit. This would begin, of course, with renegotiating every trade deal that we currently have courtesy of our EU membership. A mere trifle that will only take a decade or so, I'm sure. Then we can somehow move on to leveraging our much smaller economy into achieving the better deals that our perfidious neighbours, with whom we form an exponentially larger and more attractive market, somehow held us back from. Germany, meanwhile, managed to export over three times more to China in 2014 than Britain. Given that both countries are part of the EU and subject to exactly the same regulations, this would seem to suggest the reason for Britain's sluggishness lies elsewhere. Some might wonder if the UK economy's dire productivity, the second-worst in the G7, had something to do with it. Others find it easier to blame "ze Germans".

We can tell by the rhetoric they have already employed how our new post-Brexit government will react when they fail to secure the concessions they promised from the outside world - as, make no mistake, they will. These right-wing radicals do not even have the excuse of their counterparts on the left who, in George Orwell's words, are often guilty of playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot. Our friends on the right know full well how hot fire is, and they intend to direct it appropriately. A movement that had its beginning in blaming foreigners for holding Albion back will return to this comfortable ground when its dreams are denied.

This brings us back to Donald Trump, who has already mapped out this ground for us. He has shown that in the globalized world we live in, any attack on foreigners outside our borders quickly becomes an attack on those within. The acrimony at other European nations who refused to deal on our terms, at the migrants and descendants of migrants within our shores on whose inherent undesirability the Leave campaign has based so much of its message, and even at the Scottish and Irish who will press claims of their own in the aftermath of Brexit - all of these will be grist to the mill of a movement grounded in English nationalism. If Brexit does lead to a continent-wide collapse of the EU, the same tragedy will play out 28 times.

Michael Gove has looked forward to this collapse as the continent's "liberation". He is wrong. Rather than gaining liberty, the continent would become incarcerated in a zero-sum prison which pitted its nations against each other and against minorities within. Only someone wholly ignorant of Europe's past, someone who takes the immense prosperity, security and civilization we have enjoyed these past decades for granted, could welcome this imprisonment. With the forces of division in ascendance and the dreams of unity buried beneath the cell floor, the only door out would lead deeper and deeper into the prison. How deep? We dare not say.