Let me offer you an unwanted perspective. Let me explain why, after the past few messy, muddled, and deeply manipulative weeks of the EU debate, I’m set to vote against Brexit. Not that I expect you to agree with me. I recognise the difficulty of the question before us. Which is why I want to at least describe my fears and explain why I think fear is our most important, honest, and compelling motivation going into the forthcoming referendum.
Boris Johnson wrote this past week in The Daily Telegraph about the ‘insidious erosion of democracy in this country’. He talked, too, about ‘the sausage machine of EU law-making [extruding] more laws’ and ‘how contemptuously we will be treated if we vote to remain’. It was all dizzying stuff from a man who is, no doubt, in championship winning form. Yet I found myself asking if any of his showboating meant anything beyond drawing attention to the handsome forward with the comb-under stare. Boris Beckham might ping them in from forty yards but so too does Cristiano Cameron whenever he takes to the field. Both teams have gifted front lines and are equally weak in defence. It feels like we’re set up for a replay because, as the leader in The Spectator puts it, when it comes to what’s best for the nation: ‘the truth is we just don’t know’.
The Brexit question will condense into some really simple questions we will each be asking ourselves in the remaining weeks. Who has the best information? Who stands to lose the most? Who has the most to gain? More essentially: which one of these careerist, self-aggrandising popinjays do I distrust the least?
In the absence of verifiable facts, trust is important. If Brexit goes wrong, I’m pretty certain that it will be me shuffling along at the back of the dole queue. I suspect Boris will not. Unlike Boris, I don’t have a publishing contract. I don’t have a column in The Daily Telegraph. I don’t have income for being London Mayor and MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. I don’t even hope one day to have Prime Minister stitched on my Turkish slippers. Instead, I have what might vaguely (and laughably) be described as ‘a life’. And, viewed from inside this quite ordinary life, Europe has always felt like a force for good.
I will pause a moment to allow you to scoff. Despite what the Brexiters might say, you still have every right to do so. Scoff away. It all comes down to a matter of perspective.
From this north west corner of England’s green and pleasant, I see very little that’s either green or pleasant. The Northern Powerhouse remains a laugh of derision wrapped in a snort of contempt. Instead, it is the word ‘Europe’ that stands for investment at a time when central government has pulled the plug on everything but our tattoo parlours in the name of austerity. New developments usually have the magical ‘E’ word written in some corner of the building site notice that also warns visitors to wear hard hats and not to feed the night shift. And speaking of hard hats, Europe is the word that also means protection in the workplace and, if you dismiss that as mere leftist dogma, I can only say that, having done horrible jobs that Boris Johnson would never dream of doing, I am sorry if you think it wrong to care about workers getting crushed by cement lorries. I feel safer knowing that European protection is there, as I also feel better knowing there exists a bill of human rights. The very fact that the European Human Rights Act offends a few high profile politicians is surely a good sign. It is already curtailing the powers of people that would push the rest of us towards the sharp end of press censorship, web surveillance, and the suppression of thought and expression.
There are, I readily admit, problems with Europe. I don’t need prescription lenses to recognise the flaws of the EU. I could easily find them bumbling in the dark, though thankfully, EU regulations about safety lighting prevents my needing to bumble anywhere. Much of what I’ve just described could be implemented by national government and, surely, you would say, if our government doesn’t support, say, the rights of workers, it’s because the electorate doesn’t care enough to vote for a government that does. Similarly, the funds flowing in from Europe originated in our pockets and that money could equally be sent directly to the regions without the need for a middle man skimming a slice to butter his baguettes. Again, if national governments don’t support the regions, it’s because the electorate doesn’t care enough to vote for a government that does.
I accept all of that. I accept that Europe is flawed, obese, and walks with a mischievous gait. It has two parliaments, one quintillion rules and regulations, and it spends millions on multi-ethnic spiritually inclusive hetero-trans-lesbian wellness climbing instructors that don’t even know how to tie a knot in a organically free-trade sourced hemp rope.
I know it all. So why do I remain loyal?
Is it because I think it an ideal that is still worth preserving? The crowning achievement of the post-war reconciliation? Is it because I still believe that Churchill was right to ask that we ‘re-create the European Family […] and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.’ Is it because I don’t even fear Churchill’s phrase ‘United States of Europe’?
You do not, I notice, see Churchill’s name spelt out in bunting, despite every conceivable cliché of British patriotism being strung up to persuade us to leave the EU. And that, perhaps, is what concerns me the most. The puerile yet patronising patriotism that chimes among Brexiteers is but a few discordant semitones away from the nationalisms that can be faintly heard swelling across Europe. What begins with somebody forcing a party horn in your mouth ends with them stuffing a gun between your teeth. These, surely, are the kinds of testing moments when Churchill would have wanted us to stand firm. These are the very challenges that the European Union was meant to counter and resolve.
It is simply too easy to give in and pop a few party poppers to Pomp and Circumstance, even if you would have to be a callow hater of our nation not to feel something stirring for four lions standing tall, the Union flag, the Queen, the Battle of Britain march… Yet simple love of country does not make Brexit right. Even if I wanted to shout ‘screw you, Europe! We can do this on our own!’, I would merely be pandering to the very worst instincts I have as a human being. ‘Change’ is a powerful message but often it is too powerful. I know I would regret it later because — and here’s the clincher — it is simply not British.
There is a maturity, certainly, in standing in your long trousers for the first time and proclaiming that you can fasten your own laces. Yet there’s a greater maturity in recognising the stability of community, shared culture, and in civility. Britain is stronger when united against common enemies. Brexit would make us weaker. It would also herald the dissolution of the Union, which I cherish even above European unity. I am British foremost because my grandmother was Scottish. Such is the nature of our intimate nation. The Britain that the Brexiters claim would be stronger would be smaller than it has been in 300 years. All those people proudly flying the flag would need to buy new flags.
This is why asking about trust is so important. Can I trust that we can be stronger outside Europe? Do I trust that our national spirit will be resolute enough to counter the force of the world’s trading blocks? Stronger even than the predatory practices of China? Do I trust our leaders to protect us from the interests of elites? Boris may talk about the ‘elites’ that support Europe but I hear very few voices from the leave campaign that aren’t themselves speaking for one or more vested interests. When Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, and Michael Gove talk about Brexit, I am reminded of the laws and regulations they have championed and continue to champion. I think about disability rights, employment rights, privacy laws, working tax credit reform, boundary changes, and corporate tax aversion. I also think about Gove’s antiquated education regime that prevents many children from getting the education they need – for example, lessons in basic reading skills – and instead inculcates them in highbrow literature, much of which they are incapable of understanding, simply to appease a politician’s warped notion of pedagogy and British identity.
Brexit feels like it too would be an appeasement. It would be an appeasement to the canal boat loving, pottery collecting, tea-towel hoarding, Jerusalem singing advocates of a mythic Albion. They would have us turn our spring-wound travel clocks back to the days of Bakelite Empire so we emerge in some Billy Butlin idyll where we would lose every advantage afforded to us by being part of a modern progressive Europe.
And if that sounds to you like the politics of fear, then I agree. It is about fear. To those lucky enough to live in comfort, Brexit might well be compelling. Sovereignty is a luxury if you can afford to wallow in its illusions like you’re sinking into a deep bubble bath. To those of us that struggle on suppressed incomes in workplaces where every right is hard won, Brexit is a looming threat to remove many of the protections we enjoy, funding we need, and stability we require. For every threat to business that proves real, I worry that ordinary lives will suffer.
Fear is perhaps the only honest response to the choice we’re given. The challenge to those supporting Brexit is to quell such fears, assure me that I am wrong and to convince me that Brexit is not a gamble to all but the rich. Because, at the moment, it is striking how many of those extolling the virtues of Brexit are in positions best placed to avoid the effects of our parting with Europe. Many are retired and well off. ‘I love Europe! That’s why I live in France. But the EU has no purpose’ says Nigel Lawson. It is a view shared by quite a few émigré Britons spiritually languishing in the utopia that was the land of their youth. None of them speak for me, even if many, like Boris, are engaging, witty, and articulate. I admire his use of language. I am charmed by his character. Yet I am not won over by his argument any more than I think he understands the danger his eloquence poses to the lives of ordinary people.
Nothing convinces me that Brexit is anything but a fantasy and those that would walk us back into the incandescent glow of Britain’s idyllic past would be walking us into a nightmarish future from which there is no immediate escape. Just a chance to forget the lessons of history that we always swore would never be forgotten.