Neal Ascherson writes: In less than a week, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be tearing up its European treaties and backing into Atlantic isolation.
The slogan “Take back control!” has been showing up everywhere in the last two weeks. It’s about sovereignty: the idea that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, not the Westminster Parliament, make the laws of England. Above all, it means taking control of the country’s frontiers. This would break decisively with a sacred principle of the European Union: the free movement of people, which, for more than 20 years under the Schengen Agreement, has allowed Europeans to travel among member states without passport checks, and live and work in those countries with no visa requirements.
With fateful timing, the latest official figures for net migration to Britain, published at the end of May, showed the second-highest annual number on record, 333,000 in 2015; European Union nations accounted for more than half of that figure. This was far higher than government targets, and played directly into the Leave campaign’s refrain about “uncontrolled immigration.”
Is it a baseless panic? Many European countries tolerate far higher levels of immigration. Scotland, with a new community of some 55,000 Poles, actively encourages it. In England, support for Brexit and for the xenophobic U.K. Independence Party is often in inverse proportion to the scale of the problem: The fewer immigrants there are in a town, the louder the outcry against foreigners. In contrast, polling in inner London, where about four out of 10 inhabitants are now foreign-born, shows a clear preference for staying in Europe.
The English, normally skeptical about politics, have grown gullible. Both sides pelt the voters with forecasts of doom should the other side win. None are reliable, and the Leave figures have been especially deceitful. Remainers predict an economic armageddon of lost growth, a devalued pound and withered City of London. The Leavers’ Conservative leaders, assuming the mantle of a government in waiting, promise that “their” Britain could cover all the lost European subsidies and grants to farmers, poor regions, universities and schools. Evidence that they could find these additional billions is scant.
But there are deeper motives here than anxiety about the exchange rate or banks in London decamping to Frankfurt. Behind Brexit stalks the ghost of imperial exception, the feeling that Great Britain can never be just another nation to be outvoted by France or Slovakia. There’s still a providential feeling about Shakespeare’s “sceptred isle” as “this fortress built by Nature.” Or as an old Royal Marines veteran said to me, “God dug the bloody Channel for us, so why do we keep trying to fill it in?” [Continue reading…]