Why I am voting Remain in the EU referendum
As an Irish person living in London, the debate around 23rd June’s European Union referendum has been a depressing affair, to say the least.
Faced with dwindling prospects in the polls, the Leave campaign in recent weeks has successfully ramped-up anti-migrant sentiment to boost its appeal.
‘Vote Leave’ has wheeled out a billboard scaremongering that "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”, while the Daily Mail screamed on its front page on 20 May that "Migrants spark housing crisis”, warning six days later that "England's population to rise by 4 million in 8 years".
There is no clear polling of the more than 600,000 Irish citizens in the UK, or the hundreds of thousands of second-generation Irish. Anecdotal evidence in the press seems to suggest a divide between younger more recent emigrants and settled Irish-background voters.
Some of this settled Irish receptiveness to ‘Brexit’ is undoubtedly related to competition from workers in poorer areas of Europe, such as eastern Europe. But Irish people should take a longer view of migration than this.
Though much diminished now, it was not long ago that anti-Irish sentiment was a significant part of political discourse in the United Kingdom. It has long roots, in anti-Catholic religious bigotry, as a justification for colonialism, and in the view that the Irish were responsible for stirring up discontent amongst the otherwise respectable British working-class.
The Times, for instance, blamed the 1848 Chartist movement for working-class democracy on “that extravagance of wild sedition which, for want of any other adjective, must be denominated ‘Irish’”. Punch derided the organisers of the movement as “Mooney, Rooney, Hoolan and Doolan”.
More recently, of course, there have been attacks on Irish people during the Troubles, and widespread anti-Irish Traveler racism is present in some areas of the country.
Speaking generally, enmity towards the Irish is not now the cutting-edge of xenophobia, when compared to anti-Muslim racism or hostility to eastern Europeans.
However, as a relatively more privileged stratum of the migrant population in Britain, the experience of exile and emigration should place us firmly on the side of all those who wish to move across borders in search of a better life.
This is no abstract notion, either, for an Exit vote may even lead to border controls and custom posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This would be a step backward which has the potential to inflame communal tensions in the North.
Brexit could also be the trigger for another Scottish referendum if Scotland, as is likely, votes to Remain. Already in Scotland, the decline of Labour and the pronounced though still limited rise of the Tories means that a Scottish Nationalist government is facing an opposition that can be broadly termed Unionist.
Those of us who moved to the UK, hoping to escape a politics based on national identity, may well experience it in a new guise, as regional identities of Scottishness and Englishness take grip.
It is still possible to imagine, in a wider European context, with greater economic integration between the North and South of Ireland, and between Ireland and Europe, that national identity will become less important as a marker of politics.
Admittedly, the European Union has been an imperfect vehicle for transcending national divisions. Indeed, the EU’s pursuit of neoliberal policies, its unwillingness to countenance fiscal transfers from richer to poorer countries, and its lack of democracy at the highest levels, have fanned the flames of radical nationalism – from Golden Dawn in Greece, to the Front Nationale in France, and Jobbik in Hungary.
As globalisation makes the nation-state less decisive as a factor in regulating economic life, there is a temptation to turn inwards in pursuit of an illusory return to a purely national capitalism – the second part of the ‘Vote Leave’ slogan, after all, is ‘Take control’.
However, the economy has long since burst the shell of the nation-state.
The only way we can take control is to recognise that we need cross-national institutions to control cross-national capitalism, to tackle climate change, or to provide a rational solution to integrating refugees fleeing conflict or environmental destruction.
Indeed, the only way that national identities too small to be expressed through their own economically viable states can flourish and develop is as part of a democratic federation with larger economic units.
“The task", as the far-sighted Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in 1915, in the midst of the First World War, “is to combine the claims to autonomy on the part of nations with the centralising requirements of economic development.”
This requires not Brexit, but a vision to stay in the Europe Union, to link up and show solidarity with workers and social movements across the Continent, and to wage a joint fight for democracy, social rights, freedom of movement and an end to austerity.