Needless to say, those who favour Britain leaving the EU were none too pleased with the president of the United States’ speech on the subject this Friday gone. Their reactions ranged from the somewhat sensible (the fact that America would never sign itself up to something like the European Union) to the downright barmy (Boris committing political suicide by revisiting the Obama birthers saga).
One of the theories that has done the rounds in the more Eurosceptic portions of the UK press is that Obama went one step too far by suggesting that if Britain left the EU, it would have to start at “the back of the queue” for any trade deals with the United States. Some, like Fraser Nelson, think this comment could backfire.
I can see why they have chosen to think that it might – the line appears to go against the code of conduct regarding Brexit campaigning. One of the steadfast rules both sides have adhered to, almost as the unbreakable, golden one in fact, is “thou shall not speak ill of the United Kingdom under any circumstances”. This is the urge not “to do down the country” that Remain has managed to stick to while the Leavers have attempted to goad them into breaking this maxim. So I can see why when Obama said something negative about Britain’s post-Brexit chances, a portion of the commentariat pointed the finger and said “There! Gotcha!”
Only, I think they happen to be wrong. If Cameron had said what Obama had about trade deals and queues, then they would be right. But Obama speaking as the president of the US puts him in a different league and thus the rule as it stands gets put on its head. A charge thrown at Obama is that he has said what he said about Britain leaving the EU out of American – not British – interest. Well, duh. That only makes what he told us all about a post-Brexit world more relevant, not less.
Part of the whole narrative that Brexiteers want to advance and get more than 50% of people to vote for on June 23rd is the notion that Britain does not need to be “tied to a corpse” any longer; that if we leave the EU, we can “join the world”. That’s why Obama’s intervention is so damaging for them – however they try and frame it, the fact remains that it is hard to sell a “Britain joins the world” routine when the leader of the free portion of it tells us all that he’s not willing to play ball if that’s how it’s going to be.
Also, the logic behind the “don’t do down Britain” rule is that people in this country are very proud of it and its history and won’t buy into a negative notion that our best days are behind us as the reason we need to remain in the EU. But that’s only one half of the British psyche: the other is the small “c” conservative, cynical mindset every Brit has, deep down (the bit that comes out when it chucks it down on a previously nice, summer’s day). A sort of “it’s a bit shit, but we still love Blighty” sort of a thing. I think Obama’s queue comment hits right at the heart of this portion of the British soul – the one that wants to play it safe, the one that thinks everyone is out to get us and fate isn’t on our side. That’s why I think far from backfiring, it could be what finally gets Remain over the line.