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Nick Clegg: Hypocritical Brexiteers are as much an elite as those they rage against

April 10, 2016 2:22 PM
By Nick Clegg MP in The Evening Standard

Nick CleggProminent Leave campaigners say they are enemies of the establishment - but many of them are part of it

In recent years the pillars of the establishment have been crumbling one by one. The MPs' expenses scandal, the financial crash, the Jimmy Savile cover-up, phone-hacking and other outrages have revealed elites putting greed, corruption, recklessness and cynicism ahead of the public good.

The Panama Papers, with their revelations about the rich and powerful exploiting offshore tax havens, will only stoke the flames of public anger further. And understandably too. If your family's wellbeing has been hit by years of stagnant wages and austerity because of a crash in 2008 caused by financiers who seem to have got away scot free, you have every right to be angry when the richest in society still seem to be playing by another set of rules.

Little wonder, then, that a tidal wave of angry populism is sweeping across the Western world. From Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France to Beppe Grillo in Italy and the far-Right parties that are now in government in Poland, Finland and Switzerland, the howls of rage against the sins of the establishment are widespread.

And it's not just on the Right. On the angry Left, the likes of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sanders in America are on the march too. In the UK, we have nationalists north of the border turning Scotland into a virtual one-party state, Ukip winning nearly four million votes at the general election and Jeremy Corbyn, a one-time fringe figure on the radical Left, leading the Labour Party.

What they all have in common is an abhorrence of the establishment, whether it is bankers or big business or the political class.

Every tub-thumping populist claims to be the standard bearer for the people against the elites. It's easy these days to point an accusatory finger of blame at "them" and get a rousing round of applause from angry and disillusioned voters.

And now Brexit campaigners in the referendum campaign want a slice of the anti-elite action too. They are desperate to frame the debate as the people versus the establishment, with themselves as the self-styled anti-elite crusaders.

Liam Fox, a former defence secretary, described the Leave campaign as a "peasants' revolt". Nigel Farage called it "the people versus the politicians". The Vote Leave website calls on its supporters to "take on the establishment".

So who are the leading lights of this people's army? What are the anti-establishment credentials of these latter day revolutionaries?

Well, there's Lord Lawson, the 83-year-old former chairman of Vote Leave who was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher. He now lives for much of the year in the South of France, nurturing his climate-change scepticism and loathing of the EU from the sunny climes of the Gascon countryside.

Then there's Nigel Farage, always ready to claim the everyman mantle over a pint of ale in a traditional English pub. Nigel had a long career as a City trader before he became an MEP 17 years ago, and has failed now on seven occasions to become an MP - hardly evidence of someone seeking to shun the Westminster establishment.

How about Arron Banks, the millionaire Conservative donor who defected to Ukip and co-founded the Leave.EU campaign? The insurance magnate was named in the Panama Papers this week as the shareholder of a company based in the British Virgin Islands.

There's Zac Goldsmith, the Eurosceptic Tory mayoral candidate, who parades himself as a scourge of the Westminster establishment. He is the son of a billionaire whose whole mayoral campaign appears to be based on the claim that his closeness to the powerful in Westminster will help Londoners.

And then, of course, there is the de facto, swashbuckling Brexiteer leader himself, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, late of Eton College and the Bullingdon Club. As anti-elitists go, they are an extraordinarily rarefied elite themselves.

So don't be fooled. The campaign to leave the EU is not an anti-establishment movement, it is just one wing of the establishment attacking another. It is as if they see Trump as a role model: a billionaire TV star property developer posing as the champion of the little guy. That his hypocritical anti-elitist shtick appears to be working so well across the pond is depressing enough. That the Brexiteers are now trying the same trick here is even more dispiriting.

But the ultimate hypocrisy is not just that these people live the comfortable life of the elite themselves but that they are not the ones who will have to live with the consequences of leaving the EU. It is the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary working people that are at risk, not theirs. Indeed, Boris is probably the only person who thinks his job prospects will improve if we leave.

The side that wins an election or referendum is usually the one that succeeds in framing the question: not the words on the ballot paper as such, but the question that defines the choice people are faced with. At last year's general election, for example, the Conservatives posed the question "Do you want a Labour government led by Ed Miliband and propped up by the SNP?" For millions of Brits, the answer was no and a vote for the Conservatives the surest way of avoiding that fate.

The question at this referendum shouldn't be some synthetic "us versus them" argument, or some self-serving bilge about the people versus the ruling elite. It should simply be this: "What is best for the future prosperity, safety and wellbeing of our country?" No matter how hard the Brexit camp claim they represent the interests of ordinary people against an unfeeling elite, this should remain the real question.

So beware the hypocrites who rage against the elite from the comfort of their ivory towers. Their cynicism comes at your expense.