Brexit vote: Johnson and Farage show ‘worst of Britain’

Leaving EU will not solve problems of disenfranchised, says Oxford historian Roy Foster

Hyperbole and scaremongering have dominated both sides of the Brexit campaign. Whatever the outcome of Thursday's referendum, significant work will have to be done to alleviate the fear generated in the campaign.


When Roy Foster moved to Britain in the 1970s, it was at a time when much of the political argument was around Britain’s membership of the European project. The reticence among large swathes of the British people regarding that relationship lasts until today.

“A friend whose background was British but who had lived in Ireland said, ‘You will never understand that depth of prejudice against Europe amongst ordinary British people’. It was a depressing thing to hear and I have slowly come to realise this is true,” said Foster.

It is not a view that the academic from Waterford shares. Along with 300 other historians from Britain and wider Europe, he signed a letter calling for a Remain vote in Thursday’s referendum, so as to “reaffirm our commitment to the EU and stiffen the cohesion of our Continent in a dangerous world”.

Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford, Foster is passionate about Britain remaining inside of the EU and ferociously critical of the figures spearheading the Leave campaign.

“It just seems to me incredible that when there is such an overwhelming consensus from business leaders and an overwhelming consensus from economists – who never agree about anything – that it would be a dangerous, uncharted disaster to leave, that so many people still want to do it,” he said.

‘Voice of the alienated’

“As is clear, it is the voice of the alienated, of the disenfranchised – people who feel they are disenfranchised – the depressed, the people in post-industrial rust bucket cities. But if they think that leaving Europe will put the clock back, it is a pathetic delusion. What they are suffering – and I don’t underestimate the sufferings of the people on the island outside of the southeast – is all sorts of global factors and globalising factors which leaving Europe won’t affect, except I think it will accentuate the depression in such areas.

Brexit or Bremain: How would you vote?

“I also have to say that the people heading Brexit - there is not a single figure among them who I would see as intellectually reputable or worth listening to. I think the repellent opportunism, superficiality and implicit racism of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and Nigel Farage is the worst of Britain.

“And I also reserve a special fury for the dimwitted secretary of state for Northern Ireland, the incredibly inadequate Theresa Villiers, who has, purely for opportunistic political reasons I should think, put herself in the front row of the Brexit people when, as everybody knows, this is one of the most divisive issues in Northern Ireland and a Brexit vote would be a disastrous setback for the advances that we have seen in the province and in relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland.”

Foster rejects strongly any suggestion that a Brexit would reverse “inevitable processes of change” that have been happening in British society and says the most frequent topic within the debate – the extent of immigration – is misleading.

Plus side

“All the statistics show that the balance of what immigrants bring and indeed what they pay into the country is on the plus side rather than what they take out of the country.

“Again, it is a misdiagnosis on the behalf of angry and alienated people who seem to think that when they lose their jobs and they lose their industries, it is because in some peculiar way of immigration.

“The immigrants on the one hand seem to be blamed for taking people’s jobs and on the other hand they are blamed for scrounging off benefits. You can’t have it both ways.”

As a project, Foster describes the European Union as a success in diplomatic terms and in reconciling neighbours, but less so in other areas.

“Economically, clearly the record is far more mixed. And bureaucratically there is far more reform needed - nobody would argue that for a moment. I think the EU has over-extended itself. I think the euro wasn’t a policy thought through as carefully as it should have been.

“I think there has been a recognition that extending membership of the EU cannot be done lightly and should be done with far more rigour and care.

“The tragedy that is modern Greece has shown that. But no institution is incapable of reform and I think the quantity of disillusionment with Europe that is showing itself in various new parties that have sprung up over the Continent is going to enforce rethinking and reform.

“But I would far rather see Britain stay in the EU as a leading voice for reform and enjoying its own partially semi-detached approach. I think that is far more what the future should be.”

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