It's a bad referendum, as Obama discovers

It's a bad referendum not a good one, unlike Scotland's; as the US president finds out when comes to Britain and is taken on by Boris Johnson. This can be read on its own and is Chapter 5 of Blimey, it could be Brexit!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
25 April 2016


If you ever find yourself invited to have tea in the House of Lords you should accept. Without having to go on an odyssey you will share the experience of crossing the Styx. As you look up, figures from long lost newspapers flit past, wasted and barely recognizable, whose obituaries you assumed you had forgotten. “Is that… still alive.. ”.

Perhaps the shades of the past are especially attracted to the United Kingdom; maybe a zombie legislator had the idea, in the belief that the country attends to geriatric opinion like his own. At any rate if you opened a copy of the Times on Wednesday 20 April, you would have found yourself addressed by a special letter from George P Shultz, who was US treasury secretary under president Nixon from 1972-74, before most of the world’s existing population was alive. He was joined by Michael Blumenthal, treasury secretary under Jimmy Carter, and six slightly less antiquated one-time US treasury secretaries. Their eight-fold ex-wisdom mobilized to inform the British public of the need to keep the UK in the EU, as a springboard for American interests and all-round world stability.

Also, “Europe has more work to do to complete its economic and financial union”. This, they tell us, “is more likely to be successful with Britain inside rather than out”. Ha! Supporting Remain to complete the union of the Eurozone is not a reason we hear about on this side of the pond. “A strong and resilient Europe, with Britain at the core..”, they continue, apparently unaware that the prime minister’s deal made sure the core is the last place the UK will be if we vote to stay. Their full, final paragraph reads:

“The interdependence and interconnectedness of nations has increased greatly and will continue to grow as we face hugely consequential transnational issues that no country, however powerful, can effectively address alone. These challenges include a paucity of global demand, financial crises when they occur, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, climate change and other environmental issues. A strong and resilient Europe, with Britain at the core, in our view would be an important force in addressing these challenges together.

 Thus do the undead of the Washington consensus, their bedtime bourbon shaking in their hands, rise as one to warn living Brits to be at the “core” of the EU – to help shield the world from the challenges of pestilence and “financial crises when they occur”.

The letter is macabre, not because the grammar is strained, the presumption plain wrong that the referendum offers a place at the EU’s core, or because it is written in Skroth, but thanks to its ghoulish complacency. It is a chilling absence that freezes the brain. The challenges they fear do not stem from the architecture of world affairs, that the eight played a leading role in creating over the past forty years. Some of the threats they list are genuine. All are external to their system. None originate with the hollowing out of democracy, the loss of legitimacy, or the grotesque growth of inequality they helped orchestrate since the start of the seventies. It would be another matter had their letter begun, “We apologize for the failures we have overseen but appeal to the British people not to make them worse”.

Some chance! There has been a tsunami of official warnings and authoritative overviews against Brexit at the launch of this weeks official start of the referendum campaign, headed by two assessments from the IMF and the British treasury. All are designed to convince the British public to submit to the realism of the actually existing world: to embrace not resist, let alone vote to Leave, the ineluctable processes of the status quo.

Barack Obama reads Boris Johnson

This was the argument of President Obama, made with all his elegant cool. Pull out if you want to, but you’ll go to “the end of the queue”. He might have added, “make my day”. His use of “queue” rather than the US “end of the line”, signaling a prepared answer. Naturally, there was no note of contrition from the young Barack. But there was a note of distinction. Watching the press conference live-streamed, I felt a pleasure in listening to him for one particular reason apart from his compelling style. In so far as an outsider could, he actually engages with the argument.

He preceded his arrival in the UK with an op-ed in the Telegraph in which he breaches the Fawlty Towers fatwa and mentions the war: how we had fought it together, etc. This was met with a counter-blast from Boris Johnson in the Sun who opened by admonishing the US president for removing Churchill from the Oval Office, at least by implication:

“It was a bust of Winston Churchill – the great British war time leader. It was a fine goggle-eyed object, done by the brilliant sculptor Jacob Epstein, and it had sat there for almost ten years. But on day one of the Obama administration it was returned, without ceremony, to the British embassy in Washington. No one was sure whether the President had himself been involved in the decision.

The passage is typical of Johnson’s skill: vulgar art criticism (“goggle-eyed”) to pretend he has the aesthetics of the common man; cultivation –knowing who the sculptor is (something Cameron is probably devoid of); insider’s information, that it is part of the government art collection; a journalist’s care not to point the finger directly when he does not know for certain; flashing an ankle, suggesting he does.

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Johnson’s article then deploys two themes. First, that the US would never dream of sharing its sovereignty, let alone pooling, neigh nearly dissolving it, as Obama is asking the UK to do. Johnson lists elementary international conventions, from the law of the sea to the rights of the child, that Washington refuses to sign as they offend its self-regard. He then points up the deeply undemocratic nature of the EU, its command over law making and the consequential British impotence:

“can we have “influence” in the Brussels commission, when only 3.6 per cent of Commission officials come from this country?


Can you imagine the Americans entrusting their trade negotiations to a body that comprised only 3.6% Americans? The idea is laughable.

He concludes by calling on the spirit of Obama himself:

“I think it is time to channel the spirit of the early Obama, and believe in Britain again.

Can we take back control of our borders and our money and our system of government? Yes we can.

Can we stand on our own two feet? Yes we can.

Can we build a new and prosperous relationship with the rest of the EU, based on free trade and intergovernmental cooperation? Yes we can.

Can we speak up for the hundreds of millions around the continent who also feel estranged from the Brussels project? Can we once again be the champions of democracy? Yes we can.

And by doing all those we can thrive as never before – and therefore be even better and more valuable allies of the United States.

In some personal responses I received to last week’s section of Blimey, on Gove and Johnson, I’ve been told I’ve been too generous to them. All I did was allow them a hearing. Doubtless, President Obama had as little time for Boris Johnson as I had. But an exceptionally popular politician, a Tory mayor of London for eight years who avoided any major scandals (unless you count his permissive vandalism of the entire city), an ambitious man with the nerve to spurn the offer of a high office of state, has now thrown down a challenge to the entire world order. He might even win. What does Obama do? He deploys what Paul Hirst called American seriousnesssomething George W “I don’t do nuance” Bush catastrophically lacked. Obama actually reads the Johnson article.

What a relief! None of the parties to the UK debate so far have extended this respect to the other. Many on the left are justified in complaining about ‘the media’. Reporters often do not read a speech but ask ‘what is the talking point’, tweet that and then report the coverage; getting high off the froth of the media torrent. But today, the full texts, often quite short, are available at two clicks of a search. Reading is not a matter of believing, it need not stop you sneering, but it is essential to measuring what is going on. At any rate, Barack Obama teaches the English left a lesson in this respect. He takes the Mayor seriously. 

In his press conference, Obama went out of his way to reassure everyone about Winston Churchill. How he had a bust of him outside his private office that he looked at “every day”, how he “loved the guy”. A likely story, the point being he would not concede the shibboleth to the Brexiteers. He responded to Johnson’s main point: “All of us cherish our sovereignty – my country is pretty vocal about that”. It was not a formulation that David Cameron, standing next to him, wanted to repeat.

But America too, Obama argued, felt constrained by the rule-bound arrangements it entered:

“after World War II, we built out the international institutions that, yes, occasionally constrained us, but we willingly allowed those constraints because we understood that by doing so, we were able to institutionalize and internationalize the basic values of rule of law, and freedom, and democracy, that would benefit our citizens as well as people around the world.

And later in reply to a question:

“And what I’m trying to describe is a broader principle, which is, in our own ways – I mean, we don't have a common market in the Americas – but in all sorts of ways, the United States constrains itself in order to bind everyone under a common set of norms and rules that makes everybody more prosperous….It meant that on occasion we have to persuade other countries, and we don't get 100 percent of what we want in each case. But we knew that by doing so, everybody was going to be better off – partly because the norms and rules that were put in place were reflective of what we believe.

Being smart and focused, the president is aware this only appears to answer Boris Johnson’s case; which is not that the UK shouldn’t enter into sovereign agreements that constrain it, but that the US would never subordinate itself to a legislative system that shackles it. A different order of magnitude is involved. So Barack Obama advises – no, instructs – the Brits to abandon any such way of thinking:

“if I’m a citizen of UK, I’m thinking about it solely in terms of how is this helping me, how is this helping the UK economy, how is it helping create jobs here in the UK – that’s the right way to think about it”.


Which is very generous of him. The British must approach membership of the EU instrumentally and not as a matter of principle. He also adds, endorsing the prime minister’s corporate populism, “as David said, this magnifies the power of the UK. It doesn't diminish it”. Nonetheless, while Johnson’s central argument is skilfully stepped around, the mayor was listened to and got a dignified answer from POTUS himself.

There was an immediate, lavish hallelujah from the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, at the arrival of a surrogate leader of the left (in British terms) able to embrace Remain wholeheartedly. Obama, Freedland claims, shows that Johnson’s argument that the US would never accept the same loss of sovereignty as Britain is “silly”, for we are small and they are huge. Also, “as Obama explained in Downing Street, the US does trim its sovereignty when it suits its purposes”. As Johnson points out, the UK is not so small. Also he is clearly not opposed to making sovereign agreements, which necessarily limit the country thereafter. It isn’t him who is being silly; he just wants the authority to make such agreements in the first place, not have them imposed by the EU.

I’m for Remain as a European, but there is a hugely important democratic case for Leave that must be addressed, not denigrated. Otherwise the left will be unable to revive political life in England after June. Freedman’s conclusion signals why. He states that the Brits have to do what the American president says: “we need to stay in the marriage we’re in, even if sometimes it feels a little loveless”.

What a way to advocate remaining in the EU, as a loveless but necessary marriage! It’s handy as a way of sidestepping sovereignty and democracy and typical of mainstream advocacy of Remain. I recall arguing with Freedland back in the nineties when he persuaded the Guardian to endorse republicanism and the abolition of the monarchy. It was tilting at symbols, I argued, to focus on the crown; the U.K. needs a written constitution to which the head of state swears allegiance. Whether or not that person is hereditary is secondary. The core constitutional argument has to be that Britain becomes a modern democracy in which all citizens can participate, and therefore believe in. To take the argument on, this is the precondition for sharing sovereignty successfully; which is why it is the only way out of the impasse the referendum represents. As a republican Freedland spoke out for a British solution, and that was great. What is depressing, doubtless for him too, is that on this occasion apparently only a foreign leader can make the case against Brexit effectively. Isn't this a shameful sign of desperation, especially for the left? 

Obama lavished the Queen with praise calling her a jewel. Freedland ignores this and instead, spends paragraphs attacking Johnson for being a racist rather than on the issue of democracy. This was over the Mayor’s reference to Obama’s ancestral Kenyan father. Johnson lauds his own Turkish ancestry and plays with racism but seems less prejudiced than many Tories. The serious point of his barb was to suggest that Obama had inherited anti-British sentiment from his family’s colonial experience – as if this was unjustified. Within less than ten years of liberating Belsen, British forces were building concentration camps in Kenya. Even if their victims were mainly from the majority Kikuyu, not Luo (like Obama’s grandfather), Obama has every right to feel animus towards the British Empire and regard Britain as lacking the moral fibre to face up to its past.

What we need is a prime minister who takes the opportunity to apologize for what the country did in its former colonies. When it was revealed just this month that Cameron’s family had benefitted from using Panama as a tax haven, he went on television and said he loved his Dad. So let’s be personal. He should have said that he apologises for what his father’s generation did to the land of the US president’s Dad. And what Boris Johnson should really have been called out for is the imperial nostalgia of playing the Churchill card. There was no excuse of any kind for the British Empire after 1945 – and it is outrageous to advocate the fine principles of self-government and democracy and then wrap them in its flag, as the recent Brexit video does shamelessly.

The Treasury

Obama’s intervention was the lightening that accompanied the thunder at the start of the Remain campaign. The government has now laid down how it intends to fight the referendum. Forget Cameron’s deal; don’t talk about democracy; preferably don’t talk about Europe either – make it clear that Leave is a high risk, high cost, dead end. The case is set out in the Treasury Analysis of the long term impacts of leaving the EU. An analysis of the short term impacts is promised as well, it’s timing doubtless to be determined to ensure maximum impact. The 200 page detailed analysis of the U.K. economy long-term, projects a cost of leaving the EU to be £4,300 a year for every household - in fifteen years time. Given the unmeasurable uncertainties of the present global economy, this is daft. It feels as if someone, somewhere said, “whatever it is, double it”.

In terms of the Remain strategy, it will work if it gets across to the public that they will be poorer if they vote Leave. This is not a dishonest conclusion. But the Treasury document stinks of Remain’s bad faith. The Chancellor himself introduces the document in a signed foreword. He tells us he has an obligation to lay the facts before the economic public as part of his “duty” is to deliver economic security and higher living standards. He agrees,

Of course, there are many factors to weigh – not just the economic ones. Does Britain want to continue to be a country that faces out to the world? Do we want to be promoting our case at the top table of the world’s institutions? Is our national security best served by retreating from the world?

Apart from the economic costs, apparently that's it. In three short, loaded questions George Osborne disappears the factors of democracy, sovereignty, and influence over decision-making that are at the heart of the principled demand for leaving the EU, not to speak of border control over immigration. Osborne is always reported as being highly political and calculating. His decision is to eliminate these “factors” from the ones the government recognizes as relevant for the public to weigh. In a sly way the non-factors are addressed in the document which reports “the UK has significant influence over EU decision-making and the rules associated with the Single Market”. It is a blatant decision in a government report to redefine the battleground.

The Treasury quotes with approval the IMF and the Bank of England. Its summary of their views can stand for the official case:

“In the April 2016 World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) highlighted that a UK exit from the EU would do severe regional and global damage by disrupting established trading relationships.” The IMF also said, “A British exit from the European Union could pose major challenges for both the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Negotiations on post-exit arrangements would likely be protracted, resulting in an extended period of uncertainty uncertainty that could weigh heavily on confidence and investment, all the while increasing  financial market volatility.” 

In discussing the implications of a vote to leave, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee noted that “Such a vote might result in an extended period of uncertainty about the economic outlook, including about the prospects for export growth. This uncertainty would be likely to push down on demand in the short run.”

A Jurassic referendum

If we pull back from the Brexit debate as it has been launched and is likely to play out for the next two months, it's seems strangely archaic. It is as if Westminster politics has created a Jurassic Park in which natural extinction has been genetically upended. On one side, the great machinery of 1990s corporate power – the IMF, the Treasury, the EU and the White House – acting with arrogant entitlement. On the other, leaders of Brexit calling for the reconstitution of national sovereignty and the democratic liberation of Europe as if it was 1940s all over again. The former, like all oligarchs, do not believe their power should be democratically accountable and refuse to even answer demands that it should be. The latter, call on us British to “stand on our own two feet” as if these were not bound by ludicrous institutions like the House of Lords and first-past-the-post elections that horrify democrats across the continent.

How can such a choice energise the majority of the British public? Those who feel that, like it or not, the UK must stick with its unhappy marriage, will assent to the institutions of the world order. Those who have the the hooligan spirit to say “up yours” to the institutions (and any immigrants who come to hand) will do so defiantly. But those generally disenchanted with politics, or who are pro-European and not ‘pragmatic eurosceptics’ like Osborne and Cameron, or are young at heart and in mind and looking for change, are they going to be inspired by Jurassic replicants? 

A comparison with Scotland reveals how out of sorts Anglo-Britain is. Not for the London media, which is part of the malady, but for those who lived in Scotland, its 2014 independence referendum was a blessing. In an article on Corbyn’s Golden Opportunity, I set out how there are good crises of growth and development and bad crises of decline and entrapment. The Labour party might be going through a bad crisis but the forces seeking democracy across Britain were having a good crisis, I argued, and the two had met in the Labour leadership election. The golden opportunity for Corbyn and his supporters was the chance to face outwards to the democratic opportunity rather than inwards to the bad crisis of Labour in Westminster. In a similar way there are good referendums and bad referendums. Good ones that release a positive, transformative force, as a country assesses its place in the world; bad ones that lock in the forces that need to be released or, worse, give another twist to an integument of loss, leaving everyone dissatisfied. Scotland had a good referendum. So far, Anglo-Britain is having a bad one.

In Scotland in 2014 there was a genuine engagement across the public. Turnout is only one measure of how profound it was: at 84% the greatest since universal suffrage in the UK. I’m not saying there was not pain, or hurt, or division in Scotland. But it was the pain of living, not the misery of witnessing a receding tide of self-belief. The country visibly grew during the experience, and afterwards as a result of it. The nation rejected independence yet in doing so it became less ‘British’ and more itself. I am told this is being confirmed by the current Brexit referendum. In part because Scottish parliament elections are taking place in May, the EU referendum seems like the the US presidential race, important for Scotland but not belonging to or taking place there.

One account from an outsider provides a witness of the impact of the 2014 north of the border. Niki Seth Smith is a young Englishwoman who was living in Edinburgh at the time. In an essay in Resist! edited by Ray Filar, Seth Smith recalls: 

“the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the most important political event yet for my generation of young people in Britain. Not only that: it was a harbinger of the kind of politics we can expect for the future, not only in the UK but also Europe-wide.

She writes about how it restored public spirit, how the country would have said YES to independence were it not for its pensioners, who voted 77% for NO. She describes the striking absence of nationalism among the young as they mobilized,

“young people have pushed hard to rejuvenate civil society and democracy in their nation, seeking independence in order to ensure greater solidarity with those living in Scotland and beyond its borders…

There is little likelihood any young person will recall the Brexit referendum in these terms. I went to Scotland for the vote itself and experienced the moment. What was striking was the relative lack of cynicism. There were those longing for a YES. There were others who set their face against this. Among them, many who felt that Scotland is distinct and will become independent but not yet. Their incremental instinct was reinforced by ‘The Vow’. As voters were put off by the complacency of the pro-British campaign and swung towards embracing independence, all three main Westminster party leaders, including David Cameron, put their signatures to a ‘Vow’ published in the Daily Record. The London leaders solemnly asserted that the Scottish parliament “is permanent” (thus blowing a hole below the water line of the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster parliament) and pledged more home rule for the Scots. It swung the day. This was a serious country considering how far to take its future into its own hands, being made a serious counter-offer to full separation.

Proof of the renewal was the boost in membership enjoyed by the SNP, its capacity to recover after losing the referendum, including making the most difficult of all transitions: from a charismatic founding leader to an even more popular and equally hard-headed successor. Further proof is likely to come in the shape of Labour losses in next month’s May elections of the Holyrood parliament, as Labour is the old establishment. Today the country is experiencing a cultural and political revival. 

If the first week of the official referendum campaign is the predictor, a similar rejuvenation seems unlikely in England after the referendum. It could happen, as opinion is volatile. Both sides of the campaign are seeking out the kind of support that will snowball and galvanise the public. Why isn’t it likely given what is at stake?

In the last chapter I pointed out that Gove and Johnson are defying “reflexive impotence” and seeking to lead what is in effect an anti-systemic movement. Yet they do not apply their eloquent arguments against the oligarchic nature of the unelected inhabitants of the European Commission to the upper chamber of Britain’s own parliament. They are improbably mobilisers of democratic opinion, as both men appear to support even more competitive and antisocial capitalism in the UK. It makes the job of supporting Brexit from the left, which is essential if there is to be a take off of popular energy, er, difficult. As those who try are finding. John Mills makes an honourable, practical case. Aaron Bastani does his best in his Novara video, Why the left should vote to leave the EU. Both make the point that the EU is not an inter-governmental body, it’s a a supra-national one that makes its own laws. For Bastani it is an unreformable, undemocratic, corporate capitalist cabal. What should the left in Britain do about this? Well, “we are washed up” so we had better “pull our socks up”. As there is no prospect of a socialist Germany, without which reform of the EU is impossible from within, the English left has no alternative but to create socialism from without, here in the U.K.. No, it does not fill me with confidence either.

Arguments should be judged on their merits rather than their friends. But take this blast at the Remain campaign by another supporter of Leave. He attacks it for being backed by “large corporations and big boys of the CBI, the big banks and the oil companies, funded by Goldman Sachs and supported by the European bureaucracy”. Enough, surely, to set the leftist heart racing and heading for the streets. But hold on, I’m quoting Liam Fox, who goes on to praise the example of Donald Trump similar appeal to all those who feel “let down”.

Now UKIP’s Nigel Farage is looking leftwards too; not to Trump but, ironically perhaps, to Europe. His Sky interview with Dermot Murnaghan shows how he is already thinking beyond the referendum, calling for the transformation of UKIP into a party modelled on the 5 Star movement in Italy, abandoning its old fashioned methods of membership for modern organising through the internet, and appealing to young people. Like almost everyone I have underestimated Farage. Here, he is speaking as a man gaining more Labour voters than Tories and seeking to expand his inter-generational appeal. It may be that he already regards the referendum as lost, with Boris unable to win Labour and UKIP voters, and aims to build on the Leave vote to challenge the conservative establishment. The problem UKIP will face reaching out to Bastani’s generation is that, just like the 5 Star movement, younger activists do not want to ‘leave Europe’ even when fiercely opposed to the Euro as the denomination of austerity. At least, not yet. There is potential for an inventive, high-energy anti-Brussels politics in the UK, but it can't be won to leaving the Union altogether in the next few weeks because, as the Scottish example shows, most young people want democracy but are not nationalist.

Because they want democracy they are not rallying to the cause of Cameron either, and his manipulative, corporate politics. An effort is being mounted to create a separate movement for staying in: Crowdpac UK want to enthuse people about being in Europe; Another Europe is Possible is campaigning for a British Remain in a reformed Europe of social justice and democracy. DiEM 25, which I support, wants a radical, democratic transformation of the EU (a case set out by Yanis Varoufakis). But can any of these fine efforts get around the fact that a vote to Remain is a vote in favour of Cameron, Osborne and the Treasury – not to speak of Washington, Berlin and Brussels itself? 

The referendum is less a choice less about how to move forward than how to keep the lid on. From a democratic point of view, Brexit “would return the UK to its pre-modern constitution” as Simon Deakin points out, while Remain would subordinate the UK to European oligarchs intent on austerity. Meanwhile, the lid is shaking, the pot below is heating up, the stove itself is in need of fundamental repair. Next week I will look at the larger context of disenchantment with politics through the nineties and the early years of this century followed by the rebellions in the wake of the financial crash. Developments in Scotland are part of this as is the fact of the Brexit option being put to the vote. Both the good and the bad referendums have to be situated within the rebellions against the political caste and their vested interests now taking all kinds of forms. After sketching this context it will be possible to turn to Europe itself: what is wrong with it, and can it be put right? Then, finally, I’ll be ready to ask what Labour and the English left generally should do to emerge smelling of the future from the noxious putrefaction of choosing between 2016's Leave or Remain


Read Anthony Barnett's book as he writes it, along with the rest of openDemocracy's Brexit coverage, on our Brexit2016 page.

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