Refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive in Lesvos from Turkey. Photo: Wikipedia Refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive in Lesvos from Turkey. Photo: Wikipedia

As the EU referendum draws closer, and the Tories split further, Chris Bambery looks at why the debate is not the orgy of racism that so many predicted

A strange thing has happened in the course of Britain’s referendum on members of the European Union. Many, particularly on the left, predicted this would be vile campaign dominated by racism and the presence of Nigel Farage and Ukip. But it hasn’t worked out like that. Farage and Ukip have been sidelined. The big hitters on both sides are members of the two rival camps in the Tory Party. All the other parties at Westminster seem to have exempted themselves.

True, a choice between Cameron, Osborne and May on the one hand and Johnson, Gove and Iain Duncan Smith on the other is no choice. But what’s good is that the row in the Tory Party is becoming more toxic.

While some continue to be fixated about combating Ukip or the Nazis (at their lowest point in many years) the fact that is that the biggest ratcheting up of the attack on migrants has just been pushed through by the European Union; the treaty arranged by Angela Merkel between the EU and Turkey. That ripped up long established rights of refugees fleeing war and means those in Greece will face deportation back to Turkey, itself becoming less stable, and new arrivals will now be put in detention camps unlike before. The corruption behind all this, with the EU bribing the Turks to sign, speaks volumes about the undemocratic nature of the EU. And yet there are those who think Farage is the main driver of anti-migrant racism, not noticing he’s been sidelined and could only dream of doing something as despicable as fixing that treaty with Turkey.

Back in Britain meanwhile, the Cameron government is in turmoil and George Osborne, in particular, is in the firing line.

During the recent budget you could see the anti-EU government ministers fizzing, along with much of the Tory back benches as George Osborne went off on one about the necessity of Britain remaining in the UK. They could not wait to get their revenge, and of course IDS put the boot in with his resignation. Osborne’s leadership hopes look dashed (indeed rumours flow that he’s about to be reshuffled). I had the joy of attending the Treasury Select Committee where Osborne explained the thinking behind the budget. The Tory MPs on it were perhaps the most disdainful at his inability to reduce the budget deficit in any way.

The Tata steel debacle has also made his pursuit of the Chinese government look laughable as it became clear as part of that it meant the UK opposing EU tariffs on Chinese steel imports (Osborne’s priority is to get Chinese Banks to use the City of London as their Western base).

But let’s return to the EU referendum. Far from being a carnival of reaction and racism, it is fairly boring. The contrast with the 2014 Scottish referendum is telling. Then there was a rash of public meetings, debates and cultural events plus mass canvassing. This referendum has seen little or none of that, in part because of the concentration on the other elections in Scotland, Wales, London and elsewhere in England.

Both sides tend to concentrate on the economic benefits of leaving or staying. The attempts to revive Project Fear, used to effect in the Scottish referendum, have been risible, in part because two years ago the Unionist camp relied so heavily on Labour and Gordon Brown particularly, to spread stories like you’d lose your pension if Scotland chose independence. This time it’s left to assorted Tories and business leaders to try and scare voters, and few seems to accept their claims because they are so little trusted.

Aside from the attack on migrant rights represented by the EU treaty with Turkey, Greece remains under the cosh of the unelected Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). The IMF actually wants to put in place some debt relief at the cost of further “structural reforms” of pensions and labour legislation, but Angela Merkel won’t play ball, so the European Commission and ECB won’t either.

The driving force behind austerity and the “race to the bottom,” in terms of tearing up welfare provision and the rights of working people, is the European Union. Cameron and Osborne lead a nasty government but it’s trailing behind many of their European counter-parts in pushing through even further neoliberal measures.

One argument deployed by those on the left who advocate staying in the EU is that Westminster is undemocratic, so what does it matter if the EU is. The EU is actually more undemocratic than Westminster. Yes I know that’s hard to imagine. The EU Commission is the equivalent of the Cabinet but it’s completely unelected and unaccountable. Westminster is dreadful but there could be no equivalent of MPs voting down the government over bombing Syria because the European Parliament is toothless.

In the current state of the referendum campaign the left should be shouting out from the rooftops about how the EU created this migrant crisis and the racism of its response. It should be attacking the complete neoliberal drive of the EU, and not pretending the EU guarantees a Social Europe. That phrase hasn’t been heard in Brussels since Jacques Delors deployed it to win the backing of the British TUC, and through them Labour. And of course there’s TTIP.

The immediate priority is to pile pressure on Cameron and Osborne by fighting to save steel jobs, supporting the junior doctors and the NUT over academies, and building the People’s Assembly demonstration on 16 April.

But we also need to grasp that if Cameron and Osborne lose the referendum, they are toast. The conventional wisdom of many of those supporting staying in the EU is why would that matter because the replacement prime minister would be more right-wing. But that misses something – he or she would lead a much weakened and divided government, and thus one which is far more vulnerable.

If we can pile the pressure on the Cameron government in the coming weeks, and put the case for a left exit from the EU, we can shift the balance of forces our way. 

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.