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Leave’s latest myth-making: The People v the Elites

by David Hannay | 10.06.2016

The Leave campaign never misses an opportunity to present itself as the voice of the underdog, of ordinary people resisting the encroachment of policies imposed by the elites to serve their own purposes. Thus Boris Johnson attacks “fat cats” (while being quite a plump one himself); Michael Gove assails the views of “experts,” giving a tolerable impression of someone wishing to assume the mantle of that nineteenth century US movement, the Know Nothing Party; and Nigel Farage sprinkles a little racial innuendo onto the cake for good measure. All this is classical, dog-whistle politics. But is there in fact a real justification for regarding the EU simply as the work of elites imposing their views on unwitting electorates?

That is certainly not how the suffering peoples of Europe, emerging in 1945 from two world wars with their societies and their economies destroyed and tens of millions of their compatriots dead, regarded the determination of their elected leaders to make another European war unthinkable. Nor is it how the peoples of the Balkans see the attractions of EU membership after their travails in the 1990s. Peace in Europe undoubtedly owes much to NATO; but it is NATO and the EU working together that best guarantee peace into the future.

Nor did European integration feel like an elitist plot to the peoples of Europe who enjoyed the rising prosperity and consumer choice created first by the establishment of a customs union without internal tariffs and later by the advent of a 500 million strong Single Market. Or consider the ability to travel freely and cheaply, to seek work abroad, to study and to retire anywhere in Europe. These freedoms are not the preserve of the elites: just look at the numbers who take advantage of them.

The decisions to open Europe’s doors to the former fascist dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal and to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe when Soviet communist domination crumbled were enthusiastically endorsed by the people of all those countries. Again, these were not choices imposed by ruling elites. These were not policies that benefited only a minority.

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And what of transnational environmental challenges, such as pollution and climate change? What of serious international crimes, such as terrorism, cyber hacking, or human trafficking? Their damaging impact is not so much on elites as on ordinary citizens who want to be protected, and who also want to help others worldwide to be protected. Collaborative, EU policies to combat challenges that respect no borders offer some prospect of success. They are certainly founded upon popular aspirations.

So, if the “people v. the elites” narrative does not stand up, does that mean that the Remain campaign can feel comfortable? Certainly not. The mere fact that so many people can be misled into believing that narrative is worrying in itself. So is the fact that most people do not even know the name of their MEPs and have no idea of how to influence them or hold them to account. So too is the difficulty people have in appreciating why it is a strength that the Commission’s proposals and their decisions are made in the common interest by international civil servants who are not beholden to one or the other member state. But learning to appreciate these points is something we can only do if we remain a member and have a government committed to making a success of that membership.

One thing has no credibility at all, and that is the contention that a Europe without the EU – and do not forget that the objective of many leading members of the Leave campaign is to destroy the EU , not just to leave it – will be more prosperous, more secure both internally and externally, and more at peace than it is now. The opposite is all too likely to be the case.  

Edited by Sebastian Mallaby

5 Responses to “Leave’s latest myth-making: The People v the Elites”

  • How dare the leave campaign use a member of the armed forces in their suggestive photographs, they are neutral and wouldn’t lower themselves to supporting either side publicly. Much more they are loyal to their own something BJ could learn from.

    • If you have a valid rebuttal, please provide your facts and lay out your case. Otherwise, you are entitled to your opinion, but you don’t have to tell everyone about it. People tend to be interested in reasoning and logic. Not incoherent bluster.

  • So now the leave campaigners are changing tack , they want to be seen as men of the people for a fairer and more civil society , they must really believe the electorate are stupid

    • But the electorate IS responding to the ‘simple folk vs nefarious elite’ narrative. Not only that, they are constantly parroting it.