Friday, June 17, 2016

Why I voted remain

I have already voted in the UK referendum concerning the UK's future in Europe. I voted remain.  As a researcher in Europe and UK resident (some of it part time) for 22 years I have come to see myself as essentially European. As I have written elsewhere I have regarded the EU as one of the greatest and most needed experiments in governance in the last two centuries.

Despite the millions of words written and spoken about "Brexit", as it has become known, nothing has shifted my fundamental conviction that Britain, and the rest of the world, will be better off with the UK inside Europe.  Little that has been written or said about "Brexit" is intelligent or insightful.  There is little acknowledgement that successive UK governments abandoned responsibility for shaping and improving Europe. Cameron's last minute dash for reform was far too little and too late. It also elicited cynicism conditioned by internal Tory Party power struggles. The great tragedy, and perhaps great shock for many, is that when the lid was taken off, when citizens were enabled (well sort of!) to participate in a 'conversation' about the UK and its future, very few people had a narrative, a story they could tell themselves, about Europe. The emergent narrative is one of disaffection and fear, and stories that hark back to an imaginary period when Britian was 'great'!  That this is a myth shows how powerful narratives can be.

Don't get me wrong, the EU needs reform, but so too does the Westminster system of government (perhaps even more so). Much better to work together to design new governance arrangements for the world we humans are creating.  Simon Caulkin, whose work has often featured in my posts, makes elegant and intelligent arguments for remaining; they are reprised below in this blog from Simon.

Why I'm voting to remain

Simon Caulkin (Thu, 16th Jun 2016)

"There’s a more than respectable progressive case for voting to leave the European Union in the forthcoming UK referendum. It’s set out here by the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott, someone I like and respect. The lack of democratic accountability, the austerity that has driven Greece to its knees when it voted for the opposite, the failure of the euro, the inability to come together over Putin and migration, the environmental and other failings detailed by another Guardian writer, George Monbiot – all these are dagger blows at the heart of the limping half-century-old European project, and they can’t be wished away.

Yet I passionately believe that we should remain, and shall have no hesitation in voting so on 23 June.

My reasons are personal, historical and political. 

First, having married into a French family, half my close relatives are French. I care about what happens to France and know at first hand that for all the cross-Channel barbs and incomprehension, the French on the whole, like other Europeans, care about us too. Read this letter of affection in the TLS signed by, among others, footballers, football managers and rugby players, authors, architects, restaurateurs, actors and film directors, and musicians from Greece to Sweden, Italy to Poland. Or these. Despite our best current efforts to make ourselves as dislikeable as possible, Europeans believe that traditional British tolerance and fortitude are an important counterweight to different continental qualities – and any honest inhabitant of these islands would have to acknowledge that the trade is equally advantageous in the other direction.

There is another personal reason. My father’s physical and intellectual journey from committed pacifist to lieutenant in a reconnaissance regiment fighting its way through Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in 1944 and 1945 is vividly preserved in the letters that he wrote home at the time. Reading them now, there is not the shadow of a doubt that he and his colleagues knew perfectly well that they weren't only fighting for their and their own families’ futures; for them, the terrible bloodshed and mayhem that they witnessed (and suffered – my father was killed a week before the armistice) was only redeemable by a settlement that cemented all the nations affected, including the defeated, in a binding democratic embrace. (So well did these soldiers do their peacetime work that, as I only realised much later, German teenagers in the British occupied zone grew up as familiar with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other icons of British popular culture as I did; while the German postwar economic miracle owed much to the company governance regime of two-tier boards and co-determination instituted under strong influence from our own TUC.)

I’m dismayed that the remain camp has ignored these broader issues to focus on the economy and Project Fear. I don’t doubt that there would be short-term shocks to the economy from a Brexit, but that's not why I'm voting to remain. I don't trust any of the numbers. But more than that, to collapse the European idea to name-calling over numbers, as both sides have done, is both embarrassingly reductive and beside the point. Given the government’s well proven ability, not least over the last eight years, to make a pig’s ear of the economy without any outside assistance, using economic freedom from Brussels as a rallying cry for leave is almost comically brazen. There is a real economic argument to be had, about the nature and purpose of business, but like all the other important issues we face, it can only be addressed at supra-national level. Only at EU level is it conceivable that a counterweight could be developed to the dangerous arrogance of Silicon Valley and the excesses of US finance and shareholder-dominated capitalism.

As for immigration, the shrill, angry discourse about migrants reminds me of efforts 20 years ago to block the building of the Channel Tunnel for fear it would bring in an epidemic of rabies. Scapegoating is as old as history. But so, as a dispassionate New Scientist analysis reminded us recently, are waves of human migration, the inseparable companion of wars, famine, natural disaster and, although this is usually left out, gross global inequality. Of course, it would be mad to deny that an influx of incomers seeking a new life creates uncomfortable issues. But they can be managed, as they have been before, by tackling them head on with thought, effort, sympathy and state help, usually temporary, with cost. For those responsible for austerity to whip up anti-migrant feeling by blaming the latter for stretched public services and lack of affordable housing is breathtaking in its dishonesty, while to believe that any country can pull up the drawbridge and shut out these global tides is wishful thinking of the most vapid kind. 

Also disappointing is the narrow vision of other European leaders who don't seem to see the UK referendum for what it is, an existential challenge that can only be met by imaginative and sweeping restatement of what Europe is for. ‘What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom? What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?’ I’m not aware of having quoted the Pope before, but the reproach implicit in the questions he raised in his Charlemagne award speech can't be easily swept aside.

Europe,’ as Churchill once put it, ‘is where the weather comes from’. The migration surge welling up from the Mediterranean, the Eurozone crisis and the outbreaks of right-wing populism all underline that that’s as true today as it ever was; and now as then it’s no more possible for Britain to negotiate an opt-out than from European isobars or the Gulf Stream. We’re in, and we have to deal with it. Do we face up to the challenge, or run away in a way that we never have before? What’s at risk in this misconceived referendum, it’s now apparent, is not our economic future but our soul, our identity and an idea of Europe that our parents and grandparents helped to shape 70 years ago." 

Like Simon I have family connections to war in Europe (though without such devastating personal outcomes). 2016 is the centenary of my grandfather's induction into war on the Western Front. As a young Australian he also went to war to fight for the European ideal - to fight tyranny, hegemony, and the attempted imposition of belief through bullying and violence. This is worth remembering and honouring.

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