A risky plunge into the unknown

An interview with Kenneth Clarke, a British Conservative politician, on the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum.

They call you the Big Beast, because you’ve held so many high-ranking government positions over the years – no one has as much experience in British politics as you do. With this in mind, do you know how the British people will vote on Thursday?

Kenneth Clarke,a British Conservative MP: I don’t have an idea. A lot of people are angry, lost. I am not even sure if they will go to vote and if they do, which way they will vote. Institutes studying public opinion can’t determine what exactly the national mood is. Therefore, everything is in the hands of fate at the moment.

How is it possible that a country with such a long tradition of democracy has reached this point?

Just asking the question about EU membership in the referendum is very controversial. It is, after all, a big question which has an impact on everything and which incorporates many smaller issues. And people are meant to answer “yes” or “no” in a black-and-white manner about what our position in the world should be, about the foundation of our economic development, our prosperity. The arguments for this or some other solution are extremely complicated. And public opinion does not have access to all information, there is no way for the public to understand what is going on. The media is describing everything in a very attractive way, as the Boris Johnson and David Cameron show, a clash of personalities, a rivalry based on who can create more fear.

Could Brexit lead to the break up of the United Kingdom, the secession of Scotland and Northern Ireland?

We don’t know what impact Great Britain leaving the EU would have on Scotland, Ireland, Gibraltar and several other places. This is only one of several fundamental issues that have not been covered during the campaign, in particular in England.

Did David Cameron make a big mistake in January 2013 when he promised to hold a referendum?

I have never been a fan of referendums. I much prefer parliamentary democracy which, after all, was developed here in Great Britain. This is partially a generational issue. The majority of people of my age would prefer that the decision regarding our position in Europe is made by those that we elected, who deal with politics on a daily basis – in government and the House of Commons.

For many years you were one of the closest aides to Margaret Thatcher and later John Major. Would these prime ministers have organized such a referendum?

In the last few years, it was the media and their publishers who increasingly pushed for a referendum to take place.  The referendums are attractive to those politicians who know that they won’t achieve a parliamentary majority. By doing so they circumvent the fact that the overwhelming majority of MPs in the House of Commons, from all parties, are in favour of Great Britain remaining in the EU. However, populism plays an increasingly important role in politics today and politics is more dominated by media than in the past, when I started out. Therefore, I hope that neither Thatcher nor Major would have organized such a referendum. But I am not entirely sure. Margaret rejected referendums, saying that for centuries they had been the tool used by dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini. John Major at one point wanted to organize a vote on whether to enter the Eurozone, he was convinced – as was David Cameron – that by doing so he would calm the ultra-sceptical faction within the Conservative Party.

Where is all this frustration coming from that is nudging so many British people to vote in favour of leaving the EU?

It is difficult to sum this all up in a couple of sentences, but as a supporter of integration I am in the minority within my age group. The leading reason behind this scepticism is the extent of change that this group has experienced in their lifetime. On top of this, we had the financial crisis, as a result of which people have had worse lives than they expected upon entering retirement. In this situation it is easy to buy in to the belief that foreigners and Brussels is to blame for everything. They believe in simple slogans, they believe that it is possible to return to more simple times, when the pace of life was slower. This is the reason why there is a generational gap when it comes to voting intentions. The older generation is more likely to vote in favour of leaving the EU, they want to jump out of the speeding train of constant change. For young people this is not a problem.

This bears some resemblance to the roots of Donald Trump’s success on the other side of the Atlantic…

It is a problem that exists in every Western democracy. Populists gain support among disgruntled, disappointed people, offering them incredibly simple solutions to all problems. You mentioned Trump, but the same can be said of Marine Le Pen or Beppe Grillo. And in Poland you have a very lively political scene! Granted that Poland does not have such a populist equivalent but the party that is in power does have populist tendencies sometimes.

Why was the Labour Party unable to respond to these frustrations?

Because the Labour Party lost touch with the traditional working class. We no longer have large numbers of industrial workers, everything has become a lot more complicated and Labour Party politicians don’t know how to answer these expectations. And again: this scenario is taking place across Europe, where social democrats are on the retreat.

Perhaps if Tony Blair hadn’t opened the labour market to Poles in 2004 then there wouldn’t be a risk of Great Britain leaving the EU now?

I doubt it. Back then I supported the measure, as a Conservative. How could one have accepted Poland and other Central European countries into the common market without giving them access to the labour market? After all, back then there were 2 million British citizens working in other EU countries! We are talking about a modern, international economy. That is why Blair was completely right to do what he did. Until 2007, our economy was showing splendid growth, when the wave of Polish immigrants came, salaries shot up, Poles did not create any problems. The fall in wages happened later as a result of the global financial crisis in 2007. We then entered one of the longest and deepest recessions since the war, and we are only now starting to come out of it. We do indeed have a problem with immigrants, but a different type of problem. We are talking about those who escaped North Africa and the Middle East, running away from war, violence, poverty and anarchy. This is a problem that the whole of Europe faces and has nothing to do with young Poles or Czechs who, like no other ethnic group, are helping finance the British welfare state. That is why I still don’t see anything wrong in maintaining the EU’s freedom of movement.

However, the number of immigrants that came to Great Britain was 330,000 more than those who left. It is impossible to stop this pace: the United Kingdom is now one of the most densely populated countries in Europe.

I agree, however supporters of Brexit also don’t know how to clamp down on immigration, they don’t have any ideas on how to reform migration policy. They only know how to protest. Anyway, the majority of the wave of immigrants consists of students from the European Union. And those who work here – we need the majority of them. Why should we throw out a French finance specialist or a German scientist or Polish builders? I have no idea. This is a red herring. The real problem is related to Muslims, dark and olive-skinned – in short, illegal immigration from outside the EU. This problem can only be solved through co-operation with other countries, only by doing so will be able to regain control of migration waves coming from outside of Europe. This needs to be resolved in a civilized, humanitarian manner. But my views can in no way be considered to be representative of Britain’s political mainstream. The majority of politicians see that people are afraid of the scale of migration and latch on to this fear and exploit it.

rzeczpospolita-logo.jpg The full version of this interview was published in Rzeczpospolita daily