I’ve never posted about politics before, but this is far too important an issue to ignore, so here’s what I have to say about the EU Referendum. Naturally, your opinions may differ.
Less than three weeks from now, citizens of the United Kingdom will be given the chance to alter the course of European history, turn back the clock and cast Britain adrift from the continental powers to chart a separate course into the future. As a history graduate, this prospect sends a shiver down my spine.
The debate, such as it is, has largely degenerated into claim and counter-claim about what may or may not be the country’s financial position in a post-Brexit world, and what the effect on immigration might be.
I was going to pen a point-by-point rebuttal of the wilder claims made by Brexiteers, but the fact is that I’m not a political pundit, nor an economist, and there are plenty of websites out there attempting to assess the advantages pro and con. One of the most clearly laid out pro/con pages I’ve seen is http://about-britain.com/institutions/compare-brexit-arguments.htm.
But, in the end, it comes down to personal belief. This is my take on it.
Historically, larger groupings of nation states have more harmonious relationships with their allies within those extended boundaries. Since WWII, efforts to build international coalitions have certainly not been without difficulties, and a number of running sores have yet to be healed, but the results have been overwhelmingly positive. The United Nations is one example; the European Union is another. It’s easy to be swayed by the headlines focusing on where these efforts have failed, but it seems to me that a great deal has been achieved together that would have been impossible alone. Much of the hard work has been done in dull rooms by men and women of good character who have rolled up their sleeves and hammered out deals despite their differences of history and culture.
Where serious crises have arisen that have resulted in conflict and loss of life, it is in regions where power blocs and nation states have disintegrated, rather than unified: the break up of the Soviet Union; the splitting of Yugoslavia and the re-Balkanisation of south-eastern Europe; and of course the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the collapse of regimes across a swathe of North Africa and the Middle East, with the concomitant refugee crisis that has followed, especially in Syria.
Every country on the European mainland has been affected by the aftermath of these tumultuous events, just as we have here in our island home. And it is not just war, external and civil, that has made the last few years seem stormy. Economic policy too has caused its own forms of devastation, with the economies of Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece in particular falling foul of well-meaning, but poorly directed, centralised policies. But even here, sense has prevailed and measures have been taken, however tardy, to restore equilibrium.
These events have been devastating to those affected, and must seem especially cruel when the decisions seem to come from physically distant and philosophically remote bureaucracies. But the fact is that nothing worth achieving is ever achieved easily. If we lose sight of the goal — peaceful and prosperous coexistence with our neighbours, and the wish to extend these civilised benefits worldwide in due course — and abandon the project early, then all we are left with is the flotsam and jetsam of broken promises and the bitter sense of decades of wasted effort, the energy of three generations since 1945. The number of social and human rights benefits alone that would be lost would be tragic.
In the European context, it is the rebirth of right-wing nationalism, wedded to outdated notions of an imagined and often folkloric past, that troubles me the most. Are we so quick to forget the consequences seen across the conflict-weary continent when Nazism brewed its heady cocktail of misappropriated mythology and racist grievances? How can we, in good conscience, accept the rhetoric of those who judge people by the colour of their skin, their country of origin or their personal faith? Can we seriously hold a mirror up to British society in 2016 and deny that we are already one of the most mongrel nations on earth — and all the better for it? Do we really want the imposition of a form of apartheid at the white cliffs of Dover? Danger comes when people are more ready to focus on difference than in our common humanity. It is only together that we can stand against the creeping rot of hate.
How quick we are to forget that our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations that actually fought in the two world wars, longed for an achievable vision of perpetual peace in Europe. My father, like many others, even learned the invented language of Esperanto, hated by fascists and Stalinists alike, in the hope that post-war unity could be created that extended even to a common tongue, let alone a common market.
Any historian knows that the map of Eurasia is streaked by the barbed arrows of migration and invasion, from east to west and back again, from the hot south to the cool north and vice versa. These islands have been a glorious melting pot for thousands of years, with Romans (a term which itself includes a dozen races or more besides those of Italian descent), Angles, Saxons, Celts, Jutes, Vikings, Normans, French, Indians, West Indians and many others — and we are all the stronger for it. Christians, Jews, Huguenots, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Rastafarians, Coptics, Atheists, Humanists: we are all here and part of the throbbing and vibrant community that we now acknowledge as ‘British’. Our diversity is our strength. (Read about the early history of immigration to Britain.)
In the days of Elizabeth I, the English Channel must have seemed a mighty barrier indeed to the passage of such people; but now, in the age of her namesake, that stretch of water has become a mere ditch, a symbolic moat to separate us from our neighbours, and in the age of instant communication, it can be swiftly crossed not just physically, but virtually too. When I was a tour guide in my salad days, I bussed around the continent with a wallet inches thick, stuffed with a dozen different currencies. Now, we can travel thousands of miles with only one exchange rate to worry about — and of course we can go unhindered about our business thanks to that glorious “EU Citizens Only” gate through Customs. And whilst I, as someone running a small online business, have had cause to grumble at EU VAT regulations, those responsible are actually trying to harmonise the system, if sometimes clumsily.
Surely, this shrinking of the globe is a good thing? Why on earth would we want to throw away the advantages of closer harmonisation with our neighbours in favour of an uncertain and lonely future?
“The first casualty of war,” as the saying goes, “is the truth”, and despite every fibre of my being screaming at me that the right thing to do is remain a part of this hard-won guarantee of perpetual peace in Europe, there are others who clearly believe — or have been persuaded — of the opposite.
As a military historian, I see countless cases where we are all too ready to accept the plaudits for our victories, but either quietly bury or create a new mythology from our defeats. The most recent and well publicised instance has been, of course, Afghanistan. Our tendency to ‘go it alone’ and ‘do it our way’ came close to disaster and arguably resulted in failure of mission. Since much of our notion of Britain’s greatness has been wedded to our ability to ‘punch above our weight’ militarily, where does that leave us now? Where on earth does this notion that we “don’t need” our European partners come from? Have you paid attention to the current state of our armed forces?
The pageantry of the Queen’s Birthday Parade that will fill our screens next weekend is magnificent to behold, but it masks a modern military that will never again see off hordes of savages from behind walls of mealie bags, nor storm the beaches of some foreign shore under the barrage provided by the world’s greatest navy and the growling Merlins of ‘the few’. No, apart from the spectacular white elephants of the new aircraft carriers, most of the meaningful money now goes to fund men and women you will never see, the secret cyber-army keeping us safe while we sleep. Neither you nor I may like it, and I’m among the ranks of those stirred by the crunch of mirror-blackened boots on drill square gravel. But sadly, it’s a fact of modern warfare: the enemy you can’t see is far more dangerous than the one you can.
To combat this new enemy, we need as many friends as we can get, and to work more closely with them. Some of the best friends we have are just across the Channel, and are already more engaged in the redefined front line than our pals across the Atlantic, as recent shocking events have shown. Closer collaboration with our European neighbours is the only way to improve our security both in the short and the long term — NATO is no longer the only, or perhaps even the best, paradigm in an age in which full-scale conventional war on the Eurasian landmass is now only a remote possibility, whilst the 365/360° threat of asymmetric warfare grows apace. Our soldiers are having to learn to become policemen, spooks — and geeks.
I believe that I’m at least as much a European as I am British. I believe that a future inside the European Union is of far greater benefit to us all — including our neighbours and the rest of the world — than leaving would be. I believe that our continued close participation in the EU can help bring about the reforms which its institutions so desperately need to properly serve the people they represent. I believe that ‘sovereignty’ in the way it is normally understood is an outmoded concept in the new, multinational, globalised world: we are all citizens of the planet who travel and communicate with unprecedented freedom, and our vision of the future needs to embrace the new realities, not shackle us to an outdated, regressive and parochial worldview. I don’t want a retreat to 1972, I want a bold advance to 2017 and beyond.
The statistics are stark: the vast majority of those who want to leave the EU are the older generations, whilst 63% of the under 30s want to remain in Europe. (See this and many more interesting stats at https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/03/24/eu-referendum-provincial-england-versus-london-and/) We are only caretakers; it’s not our world, it’s theirs, and look at the mess we’re making of it by squabbling over the detail when it’s the grand vision that counts. My hope is that they come out to vote in large numbers and teach us all a lesson in democracy.
For me, therefore, our continued participation in the European project is the only path that makes sense for the future of humanity, not just for my fellow British Islanders.
I shall be voting “remain”.