Brendan O’Neill

Brexiteers are Marine Le Pen’s natural opponents

Brexiteers are Marine Le Pen's natural opponents
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I’m a Brexiteer and I’m glad Le Pen lost. Those Brexit-bashers who say ‘Brexit-Trump-Le-Pen’ almost as one word, as if they are the same thing, all weird, all evil, all a species of fascism, have got it utterly wrong. Brexit was democratic, optimistic, generous, a positive people’s strike for better politics. Le Pen’s programme, by contrast, is mean, nativistic, protectionist and tragic. Its motor is fear, not confidence; panic, not experimentation. It has nothing in common with Brexit. I am a Brexiteer against Le Pen, and there are many of us.

Today’s Macron-loving front pages once again give the impression that Brexit was the starting pistol of a sinister new politics that later found expression in Trump and the terrifying march of Front National. France ‘stems the tide of populist revolution’, says the Independent. ‘After Brexit and Trump, Le Pen defeated’, it says, implying these are similar boils on the body politic. A writer for the Guardian says that now Macron has slain Le Pen, perhaps he can help bring to an end the ‘populist fever’ and ‘age of anger’ that ‘hit the United Kingdom with Brexit and the United States with Donald Trump’.

This has become the binding prejudice of the anti-Brexit set: that Brexit was the product of a malarial mindset, a fever, the handiwork of ‘white male rage’, and this diseased outlook later spread to Middle America and certain bovine parts of France. Pankaj Mishra even described Brexit and Trump as ‘sinister pathologies’. Yes, diseases. If you voted for either of those things, you’re sick. And it’s catching apparently. Where will it spread to after France?

Let’s leave to one side the irony of so-called liberals referring to political outlooks they don’t like as ‘fevers’ and ‘pathologies’. It was once the preserve of tyrannies like the Soviet Union to brand certain political views as mental illnesses requiring treatment. (Mishra, thankfully, doesn’t prescribe treatment as such, speaking instead of finding a ‘political antidote’ to the electorate’s sickness.) No, more striking is how the lumping together of Brexit, Trump and Le Pen suggests they’ve experienced a complete collapse of critical faculties. There’s no nuance. They really cannot see these are very different things.

Le Pen’s presidential manifesto was horrible. It is incomparable with the ideas or spirit behind Brexit. It is of course spectacularly anti-immigration: Le Pen proposed employing 6,000 frontier police to cut net migration from 140,000 a year to just 10,000 a year. It’s protectionist. She calls it ‘intelligent protectionism’, where the aim would be to use the state to force corporations to produce more stuff in France. She wants to replace free trade with a ‘new patriotic model’ of French self-reliance. It is depressingly environmentalist, too: she suggests creating ‘local chains of supply and consumption’, like some small-minded eco-warrior. Her entire manifesto gave the impression of someone fearing and running from the world, taking refuge from foreigners and free trade in a fantasy France that would be created and sustained by the state. Mon dieu.

There is nothing like this in Brexit, or in most of the people who back Brexit. Firstly, and most obviously, Brexit was not a vote for any policies. There was no programme or candidate for us to support, just a question: should we stay or should we go? Those who said a vote for Brexit was a vote for Farage, and that Britain would swiftly become ‘Farageland’, look pretty silly now, given Ukip has collapsed less than a year into the Brexit era.

And where we do know about attitudes that infused Brexit, and which now shape Britain, we can see they’re nothing like Le Pen’s. A recent study found that 90 per cent of Brits surveyed favour free trade. This includes a majority of Leave voters. And anti-immigration attitudes haven’t hardened, despite what the shriller sections of the press might claim: 76 per cent of Brits want EU migrants to stay here after Brexit. (Another reason Theresa May should act swiftly upon her likely re-election to secure the standing of these migrants: it’s right and proper and the people want it.) In fact, a survey of EU-wide social attitudes suggests Britons’ attitudes to EU migrants actually became more positive between November 2015 and November 2016, the time of the referendum campaign and vote, when we apparently went mad with hate.

We are nothing like Le Pen. Those northerners, Welsh people, Essex men, Scots and 1.5m Londoners who said ‘We reject the EU’ do not share Le Pen’s ugliness or her hostility to foreigners and free trade. To the extent that there were manifestos during the referendum campaign — that is, to the extent that various politicians put forward visions for Brexit Britain — they tended to be about opening Britain to the world, boosting our global trade opportunities, and of course deepening our democracy. It’s this we voted for. Not Ukip's daft anti-migrant poster saying ‘Breaking Point’ — which was incredibly unpopular among Leave campaigners — but for the risk-taking, open-minded, world-embracing opportunities that we believe will be afforded us once we wriggle free of the deathly grip of Brussels bureaucracy.

You know what? We are the anti-Le Pens. We are her natural opponents. For all her anti-Brussels bluster, she actually shares with the EU a love of state and bureaucracy, a depressing attachment to green miserabilism, and an instinctive suspicion of truly international free trade. It is Brexiteers who by their hopes and openness stand against Le Pen. When you compare us to her, you expose both your intellectual naivety and your profound distrust of your fellow citizens. You think we’re neo-fascists? We aren’t. Brexiteers are good people. Get to know us.