Chris Johns: Swivel-eyed loons are to the fore in Brexit camp

My cohort of Brits know the EU is about peace and not economic growth

An internet rumour once suggested that a Google search for “swivel-eyed loon” took the user straight to the UK Independence party (Ukip) website. The origins of this rather British political label are hard to pin down.  File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

An internet rumour once suggested that a Google search for “swivel-eyed loon” took the user straight to the UK Independence party (Ukip) website. The origins of this rather British political label are hard to pin down. File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

The nickname Tory, usually associated with the UK’s Conservative party, first appeared, by some accounts, in 1566 in Ireland, and originally meant an outlaw or a robber, usually a Catholic. The ironies are too obvious. Nicknames can be graphic, nasty, often uncomfortably close to the bone.

An internet rumour once suggested that a Google search for “swivel-eyed loon” took the user straight to the UK Independence party (Ukip) website. The origins of this rather British political label are hard to pin down but it is mostly used to capture the wilder, far-right fringes of the Tory party.

It is tough to escape the conclusion that some of the leaders of the campaign to get Britain out of the EU are somewhere on the edge of nuttiness, if not fully paid-up members of the swivel-eyed loons. The prime minister was reported this week to be worried that at least one of his pro-Brexit cabinet colleagues “has gone a bit nuts”. We even have self-styled “Brexit martyrs”.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, must wonder why he ever left Canada: this week he was asked to resign by some MPs after he gave an accurate and considered view of what the bank thinks might happen after Brexit. Needless to say he didn’t paint a pretty picture.

A unique feature of British politics is that the extremes of both left and right despise the EU. On this side of the Irish Sea political differences are more nuanced; the only parallel is with Sinn Féin’s British-style, left-wing antipathy towards Brussels.

I recently asked an Irish government official about my status post a decision by the UK to exit the EU: “You will be a non-EU citizen living in an EU country.” With, I presumed, the implication that I would have to hightail it out of here at the earliest opportunity. The official, after thinking about it then added “of course, we hope and expect that the terms of the Common Travel Area would continue to operate”.

I didn’t have the heart to point out to him that the CTA has long ceased to function in Irish airports – it is a rather one-sided arrangement that risks all sorts of nastiness should the loons win the Brexit debate.

Article of faith

Only in the UK is the question “what is the EU for?” ever asked. That’s the problem: everywhere else the answer is taken to be obvious and not worth discussing. It is an article of faith that the EU is a good thing, but nobody is sure what that thing is any more.

Ironically, my cohort of Brits should know the answer. We are probably the first generation never to have been forced to serve in the army, never to have been conscripted into war. Don’t believe all the guff about the economic and social achievements of the EU – they are real, but shouldn’t be over-egged. All of the evidence is that developed economies all grow at pretty much the same rates over the long run, whichever club they belong to. And the clubhouse, the big one in Brussels, gives our over-educated elites a place to occupy themselves while doing little harm. In the past they usually joined one of the great cavalry regiments. The European Union has kept the peace, which is what it was set up to do.

The Sun made a mistake last week claiming the queen is in favour of leaving. What the monarch actually said was that she “doesn’t understand Europe. and thinks it is going in the wrong direction”.

That’s a far cry from being a fully paid-up Brexiteer. Now, many of us share the queen’s opinions on Europe but most of us will vote to remain. We understand what we are getting with Europe: we may not like it much but we don’t believe the claims of the Leave campaign. Indeed, it is far from obvious what those claims are other than to close Britain’s borders. Which will do a lot for a nation that survives on international trade.

The Leave campaign wants to return the UK to a glorious, mythical past. Britain joined the “common market” at around the same time as the economy was on a three-day week and there was no electricity in the evenings. The previous 30 years had seen the country flirt with bankruptcy (several times), foreign policy catastrophe (Suez) and regular currency devaluation.

Today London is the capital of the world; back before European membership its population was shrinking amid economic decline. London’s renaissance is not entirely down to Europe but it is not a coincidence either.

Pompous outbursts

Brexit’s campaign has so far been rubbish. All we get are angry, pompous outbursts at pro-EU people who have calmly laid out the benefits of membership and the risks of leaving. Brexiteers copy Trump-style claims that we need to make Britain great again. Just how this is to be achieved is left for us to guess; the great hole in the Brexit case is the absence of a well-argued case.

London’s mayor Boris Johnson publicly wrestled with his conscience, made a close call, apparently, and then made an impassioned plea for Brexit. No nuance, no subtlety, no shades of grey: the EU is an abomination. Given how awful the EU appears to Boris it is surprising it took him so long to make up his mind. He gets very upset with anyone who suggests he is just trying to become the next prime minister and his anti-EU rhetoric is just cynical opportunism rather than sincere belief.

The UK economy has already suffered as a result of all of this: spending decisions have been postponed. The knock-on effects for Ireland are clear. We have to hope they are temporary.

But the debate will get worse – nastier if not nuttier – before it is over.

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