Brian Wilson: Gove's busy stoking the fires of fear

AN UGLY script deliverered in snooty tones is the wrong note to strike in a serious debate, writes Brian Wilson
Michael Goves attack on the EU failed to square the circle over the contentious subject of freedom of movement. Picture: Getty ImagesMichael Goves attack on the EU failed to square the circle over the contentious subject of freedom of movement. Picture: Getty Images
Michael Goves attack on the EU failed to square the circle over the contentious subject of freedom of movement. Picture: Getty Images

There was a daft story this week about Michael Gove getting tongue-tied over his North-east fishing ports, as if this represented convincing evidence of remoteness from Scottish affairs.

In fact, if there is one politician qualified to know his Peterhead from his Fraserburgh, it is Gove, son of an Aberdeen fish merchant.It is the rest of what Gove had to say about the EU referendum that should trouble us.

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One line that jumped out, when the Today programme — rather oddly — provided Gove with three minutes to address us, was his sneering reference to the EU trade commissioner as “a Swedish sociologist”. She has been a professional politician for 20 years and comes from the right-wing Liberal Party.

By the same token, Gove would not be treated as a serious political figure but derided, on the basis of his previous calling, as a Murdoch hack. Sadly, what he had to say was more in tune with that continuing obligation than the loftier intellectual heights to which he has sometimes pretended. According to Gove, we are about to be overrun by Albanians, Serbs and Turks while shoveling billions of British pounds into the coffers of the undemocratic EU. Criminals can “breeze in” while we are held as “hostages, locked in the back of the car”. Was Britain “too small and too weak” to survive without – pause for a curl of the lip – “Jean-Claude Juncker looking after us”?

This was an ugly script delivered in snooty tones. Yet Gove speaks for a cause which has the gall to brand its opponents as “Project Fear”, aping the language of the Scottish referendum. Indeed, the longer this debate continues, the greater the sense of déjà vu. Reason is presented as betrayal and the noble desire for unity among nations is equated to the treacherous denigration of one’s own.

The analogy extends into rebuttal of economic arguments with the bravura of baseless assertion. A future is conjured up in which those we have just walked out on would be falling over themselves to abet our every interest. Any club requiring membership would open its doors to welcome the prodigal son. And if you dispute any of that, you are part of Project Fear. Sounds familiar?

Gove asserted that Britain would remain part of the European Economic Area which includes the EU plus Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein. But seconds later he was denouncing, in deference to the anti-immigration sentiments on which Brexit depends, freedom of movement. Yet that is also a condition of EEA membership, so how is the circle to be squared?

The answer is that those whose singular objective is to pull Britain out of the EU – just like those who sought to extract Scotland from the UK – feel no obligation to resolve such objections. Assertion will suffice and since we are dealing with hypotheticals, nobody can disprove them. In that spirit, every contrary argument can be vilified as “talking Scotland/Britain down”.

Of course, the ostensible Scottish paradox is that most who wanted Scotland out of the UK are equally keen on keeping Britain in the EU. There is also, however, a consistency — the same tactics are used to advance a different obsession. Single-issue zealotry does not acknowledge inconvenient truths, so the end justifies the means – assertion, misrepresentation, downright lies whether about border controls or the price of oil. For the moment, they are enough.

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A key prerequisite for both causes is to ignore or denigrate the benefits of what exists. The fact our children can travel, largely untrammelled by borders, within a continent that was, in our parents’ lifetimes, at war is perhaps the greatest legacy our generation can bequeath. Instead, Gove and his ilk seek to convince us that we are actually “hostages” to some alien force.

One of his chilling phrases this week was that British withdrawal would prompt the “democratic liberation of a whole continent”. That hints at a project with an ideology which extends beyond British withdrawal. It is European unity as a whole which it aspires to dismantling – without a care for what would follow. Offering to “liberate” people who do not currently feel oppressed has a familiar ring to it.

There is a valid debate about the pros and cons of EU membership just as there was about Scotland’s constitutional status. There is no monopoly of wisdom or sincerity. But the politicians to beware of are those so consumed by the single issue that the evolution of circumstances has passed them by. Instead, facts are adjusted to fit the conclusion so that a fundamentalist belief can be passed off as evidence-based justification.

In Scotland, the independence cause long pre-dated oil but was then built around it for 40 years. The fact that, in 2014, objective realities did not justify the case being made was not adjusted to but denied. Those who told the truth were traduced shamelessly. But exactly the same politicians would have been espousing exactly the same cause supposing oil had never been heard of.

It is the same with the anti-EU forces. The obsessives have been around for decades – working mainly within the Tory Party, often with a breathtaking degree of disloyalty except to their own cause. That is the pedigree that Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Gove come from. It is not contemporary evidence that drives their campaign – but the objective which, to them, justifies whatever language and misrepresentation are required.

As for another referendum if Scotland votes differently from the UK as a whole (as the supposedly pro-EU Nationalists fervently hope); that too is a ruse. Scotland will still have two-thirds of our trade with the rest of the UK. Ten times more jobs will still depend on that connection as on EU membership. Indeed, the poverty of the argument will be further exposed – that “we” want to unite with everyone in Europe while dividing from our closest neighbours.

It is a false argument aimed, as ever, at creating and exploiting differences. If we vote to stay in the EU, it should be for good reasons of unity rather than as a stalking-horse for further division.