Written for Prospect Magazine:
By the weekend, this grim and unhappy referendum on our membership of the European Union will have passed from our national life. And what a relief for us all that will be. It has divided us against ourselves and made enemies of friends. We have seen too much of the worst of Britain and not enough of the best. Most will by now have made up their minds. But for those still deciding, one last effort at persuasion:
The Economic Argument:
If we leave Europe, we will have to renegotiate every single trade agreement we have with the rest of the world. This will swamp the civil service for decades and cause chaos untold—evolving chaos, immediate chaos—for every business, employer, employee or individual otherwise connected by trade, profession or exchange to any other nation on Earth. Assuming the British re-negotiators do the best possible job—and I am sure they would—the very most that they could possibly achieve would be deals no better than those we already have; the status quo. The process will take several years. In the meantime, the people who would suffer most in the ensuing downturn—and both sides agree there will be one—are those with the least amount of money to insulate themselves against it. There is no serious economic argument for Brexit which is why there are no serious economists making it.
The Sovereignty Argument
The fact of the referendum itself is all the illustration we should need to realize that we are a sovereign nation who can decide whether or not we continue to delegate certain areas of law-making to Europe. These areas are mainly to do with trade, working conditions, common policies for production, agriculture and fishing—things centred around a common market. We choose to opt out of the euro and Schengen. Meanwhile, we choose to legislate for ourselves on the vast majority of issues from tax to defence to health and education and so on. But the stark and obvious truth is that had we abandoned our sovereignty, we would not be able to choose tomorrow whether to be in or out. The sovereignty argument is self-evidently falsified by the very fact of our vote tomorrow.
The Money Argument
In 2014-2015 we paid just over 1 per cent of our gross national income to Europe. This is the smallest proportion of income paid by any of the 28 members. Think about that for a second. And it’s been like this for decades. Here are the 2007 figures. Here are those in 2011. Again, this is a straightforward truth. Not only do we get an excellent deal, we get the best deal in Europe—and by some distance. We are one of the most powerful members of one of the most powerful groups of nations on Earth and yet, by gross national income, we pay the least to be so and have opt outs and rebates to suit us that others do not.
The Political-Historical Argument
At its simplest, the EU has been the greatest peace treaty ever drawn up. Consider the warring history of our continent through every bloody century that preceded it and consider the Europe we now inhabit, visit and share. Nobody can seriously argue that Leaving would do anything but play against or undermine that hard won peace, prosperity and partnership. For what? Meanwhile, not a single one of our allies wants us to leave. Not one. Unless we are to count Putin.
One more consideration: the people of Wales, Scotland and London could reasonably request that they be allowed to stay in the EU if—in those areas—the vote to “Remain” was decisive. The rest of the country could not then refuse to allow them the same self-determination they have just enjoyed. I believe a vote to “Leave” is therefore a vote for the beginning of the end of the UK.
The Immigration Argument
There are two channels of immigration: non-EU and EU. The referendum changes absolutely nothing with regard to the first which is roughly half the net migration figure; we already have complete control over this. The second stream is the only real argument “Leave” have and what their case is really all about.
Let me be clear: my own opinion is that immigration is healthy, vital, positive and necessary. On the long view, all of us not born in Africa are the descendants of immigrants. On the medium view, anyone making an anti-immigration argument in England is being wilfully ignorant of our history and not least with regard to the various Royal Families that have sat on our throne—Danish, Norman, French, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch and German as they have been. On the short view, EU immigrants are universally agreed to be net contributors financially to Britain, not to mention all the other million ways through work, enterprise and culture that they greatly enhance our national life.
But there is a perception—sometimes legitimate, sometimes not—voiced by significant numbers of people (including immigrants) that our country is over-stretched in terms of services, transport, schools and hospitals.
I do not wholly subscribe to this view. But it seems to me that if you are voting “Leave,” then the only unanswerable grounds you have is that you believe this particular issue—the numbers of recent immigrants from other EU countries to the UK—is so deleterious to national life that it trumps all other considerations economic, political, historical or otherwise. In which case, a vote to “Leave” is a legitimate and honest expression of that belief.
For many people, Nigel Farage’s views are somewhere between vulgar and sickening. Michael Gove’s are pompous and oddly constructed (as is his manner). And Kate Hoey is an embarrassment to everyone. But at least this ill-gathered ensemble honestly hold the positions they espouse.
By far the worst man of the hour has been Boris Johnson. Why? Because he cannot and does not believe most of what he says. Read his confected books on Churchill and London. Watch the TV shows he has made. Listen to his speeches as Mayor. Every strand of his intellectual and emotional DNA was bent towards Europe until the start of this campaign. And yet, throughout, he has curried popular favour with one oafish falsehood after another. He has deliberately misled audiences in order to gain personal political advantage. He has put himself above the nation that he claims to love. Hubris does not cover it; even last night, he continued to evince a belief that this whole referendum was about him and his career; the audiences’ view of him, the viewers’ view of him, his view of him, the endless onlookers (real and imagined) that he needs to bear witness to his life.
I hope the Tory party and the rest of the country now have the good sense to side-line Boris Jonson for good. Too long have we indulged his facile amour-propre as personality, his weasel cunning as intelligence, his lumpen bombast as argument. The clumsily deployed classicisms and the cultivated candy floss hair are chimera behind which you will find simple narcissism. He knows better. He understood these arguments. So either he is consciously attempting to manipulate the British people or his mendacity is so deeply subconscious that he cannot be trusted with any serious office henceforth. His remarks regarding President Obama and Hitler were, I think, a personal nadir and richly indicative of the man he has become. I am not alone in finding his contortions genuinely saddening—since, for a while, he embodied the better kind of Conservative. As to the naked attempt to recruit Churchill to Project Self-Aggrandizement—well: Boris Jonson is to Churchill as Dan Quayle was to Kennedy. Memo to Tory Party members: Napoleon was wrong—we are not a nation of shopkeepers and we do not wish to be led by a shopping trolley.
And yet a vote for “Remain”—my vote for “Remain” at least—is not a vote for the status quo. I want to see a much more accountable EU. I want it to set about dealing immediately with those tasks that only it can deal with: the refugee crisis, the insufficient payment of corporation tax by certain global corporations, our unfolding environmental concerns. The current minister for Europe, David Lidington, will have to go and we need a new high profile appointment who should be personally charged with making clear progress on such issues. We need to take our urgent demands into Europe with the same determined energy and engagement with which we have disputed this referendum.
Thatcher was wrong of course: there is such a thing as society. Indeed, the agreements of human civilisation are all there is between us and barbarism; the rest is a Farage-Gove fantasy of flags and civil-wars and tribes and Gods and a Europe in which the Enlightenment never happened.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, we are living at the exciting dawn of an age of super-technology and super-connectedness. Every year brings the planet closer together. Not in a bogus hippy way but in real way to do with what you eat, the weather, your pensions, the sport you enjoy, where the components of your phone are from, what you breathe, see, suffer and enjoy. We are all of us beginning to understand that what happens in the Antarctic or the Amazon or Aleppo affects everyone. There is no going back. Isolation is not just a bad idea; it is a now impossible idea that insists on an ignorance to which we cannot return expect by blinding and deafening ourselves. Just as our problems are global problems, so our solutions must be global.
The EU is far from perfect but in my view it is our best route to security, prosperity and the future of civilisation. Because, in the end, we human beings have a common destiny or we have no destiny at all.
Be British tomorrow. Be European. Be part of the greatest continent mankind had ever known. For that is what you are. Vote “Remain”.