I’ve tried to avoid getting overly preachy about the EU referendum. Everyone else is doing it, and if I join in I’m probably more likely to piss people off than generate any meaningful debate – especially on social media, where people generally seem to scroll right past anything they don’t agree with and only read the stuff that reinforces their own views. But now that the deadline for people registering to vote is about to pass, it feels like we’re entering the final phase: the battle lines that have actually been drawn for decades are now firmly entrenched.
It’s bizarre to watch people who get on perfectly well on everything else descend into passionate and even bitter arguments about ‘Brexit’ (a non-word which I hate so much I won’t be using it again). Still, it’s an indication of how seriously people are taking a decision which, one way or another, will have a massive impact on the lives of people all over Britain. At the same time, it’s also a testament to the level to which the debate has stooped in the past few months.
The Remain campaign had a golden opportunity to spread a positive narrative about the benefits that EU membership provides (because yes, Leave campaigners, they do actually exist) and to be honest about the serious reforms that are needed to make it fairer and more democratic. Instead, they’ve focused on terrifying the public about the disastrous economic consequences of leaving, and throwing a sizeable amount of mud at the other side.
To their credit, the Leave campaign caught on. They’re presenting the image of some sort of idyllic utopia where leaving the EU creates infinite money to spend on public services. But at the same time, people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have railed against European elites that ‘dictate our lives’ – conveniently forgetting their own wealth and privilege, because apparently elitism is only bad if you’re not British. Painting themselves as rebellious underdog outsiders for the sake of their own potential Tory leadership bids would be laughable if people didn’t actually seem to be buying it.
The idea of Britain being superior to the rest of Europe more generally, of course, has been a running theme of the Leave campaign. Worst of all, it’s descended to its own scare tactics about the perils of immigration. It’s certainly not racist to talk about immigration if you’re concerned about the pressure that it puts on communities and services, but it fundamentally *is* racist to assume foreigners are a threat of some description just because they’re foreign. Listen to the Leave campaign talking about the risks of an ‘open door to millions of Turks’, and they fit that bill precisely.
(By the way, that’s fundamentally bollocks because a) the UK has a veto, meaning it can independently overrule any decision about admitting new member states, and b) seriously, look at their human rights record. Then look at all of the other tests they’d need to pass before they could join. It’s not going to happen, or at least not for a very, very long time.)
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the UK has not painted itself in a good light throughout the process. And it’s flushed out so many deep-seated resentments, biases and prejudices that quite honestly, if I was France or Germany, I wouldn’t want the UK as a member.
There are statistics coming out of people’s ears on every side: this many jobs will be lost, this many immigrants will come, our economy will shrink by this many per cent. Everything seems to be focused on the economy, and specifically whether you believe any of the reports produced by experts on either side of the debate.
The truth is, nobody actually knows what impact leaving the EU will have on the UK economy. It’s never been done before. We’re in unchartered waters. Deep down, I really don’t think that’s what this referendum is about – and the more disinformation is spread, the less likely it is people will listen to the evidence put forward by either side.
Ultimately, it’s a question of how the UK sees itself, and how it perceives itself in relation to the rest of the world. What we hear from the Leave campaign is how we can stand on our own two feet, “take our country back”, “make Britain great again” (who does that remind you of?). Campaigners insist we could make our own trade agreements, continue our membership of other international bodies and probably most importantly to them, have tighter control over immigration. They’ve boiled it down to the basic idea that Britain doesn’t need anyone; we can make our own decisions, so we should take back our sovereignty.
Except that isn’t true. We live in an increasingly globalised, interconnected world where countries don’t achieve anything alone. If we leave the EU, we will still have ceded sovereignty to the UN, to NATO and to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) among others. Because that’s how politics works in the 21st century – everyone gives up a bit of their sovereignty so that a decision can be made on an international level. Why? Because some decisions need to be made that way.
Countries need to co-operate and compromise. It’s horrible to know that the world we live in doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s actually working better than it did in previous centuries. There’s no reason to think that more separation would help rather than hindering progress. Reducing trade barriers allows more people to prosper; no one country can tackle climate change alone; it’s been proven that security threats don’t respect national boundaries. The UK is never going to “take its country back” entirely – and no other country ever can.
I’ve always thought that Britain is more territorial than its European neighbours. We tend to buy our homes, while in many areas of Europe long-term renting has been more common, and of course “an Englishman’s home is his castle”. I think that it’s because while borders in Europe are just lines drawn on a map, we have a lot of water cutting us off from the rest of the world geographically. The idea of containment, a space that’s defined as belonging to us, is more entrenched.
But this doesn’t actually tally up with the history of these islands: the earliest inhabitants would have made their way over the landbridge from what’s now modern-day France before it disappeared as sea levels rose. Since then we’ve traded with, been invaded by and experienced immigration from all over the world: when international co-operation through trade and political alliances crumbled, so did the economy and the political climate. These islands have never really been truly independent, and that’s what’s made them what they are, for better or worse.
We joined the EU in the 1970s, when the UK economy was in the pits and we needed a saviour. Before the Second World War and briefly afterwards, we had an empire. While everyone would like you to think that claiming to own a quarter of the planet proved our ability to stand on our own two feet, remember that a) conquering other countries, stealing all their resources, co-opting their men to fight our wars and trying to force “our culture” upon them was not cool and b) doesn’t that just prove that Britain depended on other countries for its success?
The UK is not an empire nation anymore. Somewhere deep down in the bowels of this referendum runs a vein of sentiment that rejects this.
Personally, I don’t believe that the UK would be better off on its own. I believe in co-operation and I consider that as part of a bloc of 500 million people, I have a bigger voice on a global stage than I do in a nation of 70 million. I believe the EU is flawed in many, many respects, but that if we leave it will still affect our lives and we will have no power to change it. I don’t believe that our government will take steps to replace the rights and protections we would lose if the UK left.
But whichever way you vote on June 23rd, don’t let this referendum boil down to scare tactics and “making Britain great again”. A truly great Britain should be better than that.