I’ve just got round to reading Giles Fraser’s recent opinion piece in the Guardian on the EU referendum which I noticed had been shared quite a bit on social media. I like Giles Fraser very much. He came to prominence as a figure on the British left as canon chancellor of St Paul’s at the time of Occupy LSX, providing public support for the protesters camping outside the cathedral – and indeed he resigned from this position when it became clear that the governing body of St Paul’s would not oppose the use of force in the eviction of the camp. Since then, he’s gone on to carve out a niche for himself as a media commentator, appearing regularly on Radio 4, BBC 1’s Question Time and as a columnist in the Guardian. Indeed I’m an avid reader of Fraser’s ‘loose canon’ column – there’s something I find very attractive about his CofE leftism.
In recent months Fraser has emerged as an eloquent, leftist voice for Brexit and indeed seems to have come in for a fair bit of stick for it. His recent column laments the abusive and poisonous tone of much of the debate about the referendum – particularly on social media it seems – and reaffirms Fraser’s conviction that, in view of the undemocratic and neoliberal structures and practices of the EU, the left has good reason to back leave rather than remain.
I agree and disagree with Fraser. I agree, of course, that there are principled progressive people in both camps with principled progressive reasons for their choice. I agree, too, that in many ways the EU is a horrible institution. But I disagree with this, the crux of Fraser’s argument: “It’s not who you vote with – it’s what you vote for”. This pithy phrase seems to me to encapsulate a core assumption in the Left Exit camp’s reasoning – the assumption that Lexit operates somehow on a completely separate plane of existence from the wider Leave campaign. Lexit does, of course, campaign separately from Vote Leave and organisationally, ideologically, politically has nothing in common with the anti-migrant dog whistlers like Johnson and Farage in the mainstream Leave camp. Nothing in common, at least, other than the fact that supporters of Lexit and Brexit will both place a cross in the same box on the ballot paper on 23rd June and that these votes will be amalgamated into the same mass when they are counted, with no distinction between them. That’s actually, in the end, quite an important commonality. There is no Lexit option on the ballot paper.
So the trouble with Fraser’s phrase (and this for me is what the necessity to vote Remain pivots on) is that there is, in fact, no airtight seal between ‘what you vote for’ and ‘who you vote with’. It’s not adequate to appeal to your good intentions – to say that what you mean by your vote is specifically x, y or z – ballots don’t register subjective preferences with any such nuance. What matters in this referendum are the likely political consequences of a victory for either camp and this depends crucially on the manner in which a victory for either side is likely to be interpreted – the likely features of the political mandate that will be asserted in the aftermath of the counting of votes. This will pivot on the balance of political forces within each camp overall – specifically on the question of which of these are hegemonic and have most effectively been able to shape the key terms at stake in the referendum. Because, of course, the referendum (like any other vote) is not some sort of abstract, static question hovering above the dynamic process of political struggle. It can’t be understood in abstraction from the political context that frames and shapes it.
So what you’re voting for is absolutely bound up with the question of who you’re voting with – more specifically, it’s bound up with the question of what forces are dominant among those with whom you’ll vote. It is pretty clear that the dominant forces in the Leave campaign (and let’s not beat around the bush here – the tiny constellation of left groups pushing Lexit are, sadly, totally marginal in the national debate) have, with the collusion of substantial sections of the press, in effect turned the referendum into a plebiscite on immigration. This is what’s at stake. The choice is between a bad outcome (the UK remaining a member of an undemocratic, neoliberal, ‘Fortress Europe’) and an absolutely terrible one (a neoliberal, ‘Fortress little Britain’, in which the hard right have the upper hand and and plausibly claim a mandate to ramp up the persecution of migrants).
Lexit supporters need to think seriously about the likely political consequences of a victory for Leave. They need to start thinking soberly about the referendum that’s actually taking place and not the one that really only exists in their imagination. This imperative to think honestly and with realism goes for Left Remain too, of course – and I’ve written previously about my doubts in relation to the idea of ‘democratising the EU’. But the likely consequences of a Leave vote in current circumstances in this world, rather than in the parallel universe of Lexit, seem to me to be much much worse than the likely bad consequences of a victory for Remain.