On Friday I heard a new dawn chorus outside my house. There was a rustling and twittering, as though of starlings assembling on a branch. Then I heard a collective clearing of the throat, and they started yodelling my name – followed by various expletives. “Oi Boris – c—!” they shouted. Or “Boris – w—–!” I looked out to see some otherwise charming-looking young people, the sort who might fast to raise money for a Third World leprosy project.
They had the air of idealists – Corbynistas; Lefties; people who might go on a march to stop a war. And so when they started on their protest song, I found myself a bit taken aback. “EU – we love YOU! EU – we love YOU!” they began to croon. Curious, I thought. What exactly is it about the EU that attracts the fervent admiration of north London radicals? It was the first time I had ever heard of trendy socialists demonstrating in favour of an unelected supranational bureaucracy.
In the old days, the Lefties used to dismiss the EU as a bankers’ ramp. Tony Benn thought it was unacceptably anti-democratic. Jeremy Corbyn used to vote against it in every division. Why has it suddenly become so fashionable among our nose-ringed friends? I tried to think which of the EU’s signature policies they were so keen on. Surely not the agricultural subsidies that make up most of the budget, and that have done so much to retard development in the Third World. They can’t – for heaven’s sake – support the peak tariffs that discriminate against value added goods from Sub-Saharan Africa. Nor can they possibly enjoy the sheer opacity of the system – the fact that there are 10,000 officials who are paid more than the Prime Minister, and whose names and functions we don’t know.
They can’t really be defending the waste, the fraud – or the endless expensive caravan of crémant-swilling members of the European Parliament between Brussels and Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Are they really demonstrating in favour of the torrent of red tape that has done so much to hold back growth in the EU? It seems an odd sort of campaign theme: what do we want? More Brussels law-making! When do we want it? Now!
Naturally, Lefties might want laws to protect the workforce – but they would surely want those laws to be made by politicians that the people could remove at elections. No: the more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. It was incredible that these young and idealistic people should be making a rumpus about the euro – the key policy of the modern EU – when that project has so gravely intensified suffering in many southern EU countries, and deprived a generation of young people of employment.
Perhaps, I mused, it was a general feeling that the EU was about openness, tolerance and diversity. But they must surely know that the EU’s rules on free movement mean a highly discriminatory regime, one that makes it much more difficult for people from outside the EU to get into Britain – even though we need their skills.
So what was it about? People’s emotions matter, even when they do not seem to be wholly rational. The feelings being manifested outside my house are shared by the large numbers of people – 30,000, they say – who at the weekend came together in Trafalgar Square to hear pro-EU speeches by Sir Bob Geldof. There is, among a section of the population, a kind of hysteria, a contagious mourning of the kind that I remember in 1997 after the death of the Princess of Wales. It is not about the EU, of course; or not solely. A great many of these protesters – like dear old Geldof – are in a state of some confusion about the EU and what it does.
It is not, as he says, a “free trade area”; if only it were. It is a vast and convoluted exercise in trying to create a federal union – a new political construction based in Brussels. But, as I say, I don’t believe that it is psychologically credible to imagine young people chanting hysterically in favour of Brussels bureaucrats. The whole protest is not about the EU project, per se; it is about them – their own fears and anxieties that are now being projected on to Brexit.
These fears are wildly overdone. The reality is that the stock market has not plunged, as some said it would – far from it. The FTSE is higher than when the vote took place. There has been no emergency budget, and nor will there be. But the crowds of young people are experiencing the last psychological tremors of Project Fear – perhaps the most thoroughgoing government attempt to manipulate public opinion since the run-up to the Iraq War.
When Geldof tells them that the older generation has “stolen your future” by voting to Leave the EU, I am afraid there are too many who still believe it. It is time for this nonsense to end. It was wrong of the Government to offer the public a binary choice on the EU without being willing – in the event that people voted Leave – to explain how this can be made to work in the interests of the UK and Europe. We cannot wait until mid-September, and a new PM. We need a clear statement, now, of some basic truths:
1. There is no risk whatever to the status of the EU nationals now resident and welcome in the UK, and indeed immigration will continue – but in a way that is controlled, thereby neutralising the extremists.
2. It is overwhelmingly in the economic interests of the other EU countries to do a free-trade deal, with zero tariffs and quotas, while we extricate ourselves from the EU law-making system.
3. We can do free-trade deals with economies round the world, many of which are already applying.
4. We can supply leadership in Europe on security and other matters, but at an intergovernmental level.
5. The future is very bright indeed. That’s what Geldof should be chanting.