Groundhog day; it’s that awful feeling, captured in the famous 1993 film starring Bill Murray, that no matter how much things seem to change, in fact they always remain the same, repeating themselves with a soul-crushing inevitability. Students of the internal politics of the Conservative Party must be experiencing that Groundhog Day feeling this week, as they watch the party defy umpteen efforts to “lay the European issue to rest” by tearing itself apart over the forthcoming in-out referendum, with a savagery that grows more spectacular by the day.
And for those of us who lived through the 2014 Scottish referendum, there’s also another kind of Groundhog Day going on, as we watch the same political establishment, or a section of it, rolling out exactly same “Project Fear” rhetoric that they deployed against the Yes campaign two years ago. Sometimes, the similarities are uncanny; the business leaders penning warning letters to their employees, the foreign dignitaries on parade to support the status quo, the constant demand for “facts” about a completely unpredictable future.
This is not to say, of course, that the weight of the arguments in each case is the same; warnings against a collapse back into war and division, for example, make far more sense over a continent that has seen that kind of chaos within living memory, than they do on an island that last went to war with itself almost 300 years ago.
What the debates have in common, though, is the same display of political bankruptcy on the part of a Westminster establishment that, faced with the threat of real change, can defend itself only by trying to frighten people into quiescence. The British establishment doubtless clings – even with the odd purr – to the idea that its unpleasant and bullying Scottish No campaign “worked”, and secured a 10 per cent majority against independence. The truth is, though, that it was so unattractive to Scottish voters that between 2010 and 2014, support for independence in Scotland more than doubled, increasing from around 20 to 45 per cent. And as Nicola Sturgeon has pointed out, the same pro-status-quo establishment, in the EU referendum, does not have the same huge margin of error to play with; if it succeeds in alienating 20per cent of voters across the UK, as it did in Scotland, then the Remain campaign’s Strasbourg goose will be cooked, and Britain will be out of the EU before we can say knife, or even couteau.
And all of this matters, of course, because of the third Groundhog Day we are currently replaying; the 1930s one about what happens after a huge financial crash for which the prevailing economic orthodoxy forces ordinary people to pay, in years of depressed earnings, severe underemployment, and an impoverished public sector. In the United States, we can see the battle lines being drawn between Hillary Clinton, the increasingly discredited representative of the existing political-financial establishment, Donald Trump, the right-wing billionaire maverick whose xenophobic campaign increasingly seems like the only show in town, and Bernie Sanders, the radical left-wing critic who seems unlikely to win, but is still attracting unprecedented support.
Here in Europe, we can see similar conflicts building up across the continent between a bureaucratic and managerial centre that seems increasingly weak, a populist xenophobic right that would blow the painstakingly-built international structures of the last seventy years out of the water, and a resurgent left that articulates a persuasive critique of the status quo, but often lacks a workable programme for escaping from it.
Like the coming US election, the EU referendum therefore poses some difficult questions for those on the left who are genuinely seeking a more just and sustainable society. Some conclude that to back the current political establishment is impossible, particularly given the spectacular bullying of Greece to impoverish its own people in order to conform with the monetarist orthodoxies of the European Central Bank.
Others, though, think the defeat of the war-mongering nationalistic right is the highest priority, even if it means a temporary alliance with the spent forces of the old centre-right, from Hillary Clinton and David Cameron to Angela Merkel; and are therefore prepared to vote for the continuation of the international architecture that emerged from the postwar period, and to hope and work for its reform – notably the restoration of the EU to its former ideal of a “social Europe”.
The achievement of the EU, in other words, is arguably far too substantial to be wiped out by the policy errors of the last decade, grim though some of them have been. It is difficult to imagine any political idea more fatuous than the notion that a post-EU Britain dominated by the politics of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage would ever begin to offer the kind of support for human rights, workers’ rights, the equality of women, and proper environmental regulation that we currently take for granted as part of our EU membership; on the contrary, the reason they support Brexit is precisely so that they can shake off what they call “red tape”, and what ordinary British workers might call their basic rights.
In that sense – and given the alternative – the social-democratic case for sticking with the European Union, and making common cause with fellow citizens across Europe to try to make it the enlightened Union it should be, seems to me almost unanswerable. Despite the rhetoric of the Brexiters, after all, this is not a Union run by “unelected bureaucrats”, but by a final legislature of the Council of Ministers, the politicians that we all elect at national level. And it takes only a little historic perspective to conclude that the kind of Europe we have today, for all its flaws, is better for peace, for democracy, and for all the progressive changes those conditions make possible, than the kind of Europe that emerged during the 1930s; with fledgling international institutions increasingly dismissed as dead letters, the politics of the far right in the ascendant, and human rights trampled without international recourse, on the way to a war that was considered unthinkable after the carnage of 1914-18, until – with a few ominous shifts of history’s tectonic plates – it once again became inevitable.