Even as a staunch Remainer from the start, I have to admit that the official Remain campaign has been pretty lacklustre. Not as bad as the borderline racist and almost entirely fact-free Leave campaign, thankfully, but just dull and uninspiring. Most of what they’ve put forward (at least, most of what I’ve seen) has been about the likely economic impact of leaving, and its effects on the cost of living.
Personally I think that, important though the economy is, it was a mistake for them to base their campaign on that. I doubt it will have convinced many potential Leave voters to switch sides, because it’s far too easily countered. When being told that the economy might be damaged or the cost of their weekly shop might go up, people can respond with “It’s a price worth paying to get back control of our country”, or “Well, people like me haven’t been benefiting from economic growth anyway, so why should I care about it now?”, which is an understandable sentiment considering that both main UK parties have spent the last few decades making sure that most of the proceeds from growth get siphoned up to a tiny minority of already rich people.
Some would argue that it had to be this way: that the Remain side was never going to be able to come up with anything very inspiring, because they’re tasked with defending a status quo that people are already accustomed to, and because even those who on balance support the EU find it hard to get very enthusiastic about it. It’s common to hear people say resignedly “My heart says leave, but my head says remain”.
I don’t agree with this. In my opinion there are far more inspiring and positive reasons to stay in the EU than the danger that GDP might drop by 2% or that your cornflakes might cost 12p more if we left. They just aren’t being put forward as much as they should be. In my case, my head certainly says “remain”, but my heart also says “remain”, if anything even more strongly.
The continent of Europe certainly has its problems, and if you only look at what’s right there in front of you right now, some of those problems can look serious enough that it might make sense to bail out. But I think you need to look beyond that. If you look at the context, at the entirety of human history, and at what things are still like in much of the rest of the world, it’s hard to deny that (relatively speaking at least) present day Europe is an incredible success story, a beacon of prosperity, democracy, tolerance and peace in a world that seems desperately short of all those qualities.
We live in a continent that only a few decades ago, still within living memory, was tearing itself apart with war. Now its major member countries live in peace, co-operating on trade, science, solving environmental problems, and almost every other area of life. Even more recently, large swathes of Europe were still under totalitarian rule. Now those countries are starting to thrive as free, modern democracies.
For all the talk you hear of defending British values, I think Europe shares our most important values with us. The EU is made up of countries where (in general) you don’t need to worry about going bankrupt if you fall ill; where the poor and vulnerable are looked after rather than left to starve; where violence is seen as something abhorrent and shocking rather than as a normal, everyday occurrence; where people can think and say and believe whatever they want without fear of oppression; where workers are protected from the worst kinds of exploitation; where people’s opportunities aren’t limited by their gender or sexuality or skin colour; where everyone, no matter how poor, gets an education; where those accused of crimes will get a fair trial and won’t be tortured or executed by the state under any circumstances. Of course, not all of that works perfectly all the time, but by and large we are much closer to those ideals in Europe in the present than most of the world has been throughout the vast majority of human history, and I don’t think we should be taking them for granted and assuming that they’re all going to continue indefinitely no matter what we do in the future.
I’m not saying that all of this is going to be reversed straight away if we leave the EU. Clearly if there’s a Leave majority on Thursday, it’s not going to spark off World War III on Friday. But it seems to me that turning our back on the institution that’s presided over such a progressive group of countries for so long, pushing away our neighbours with whom we have so much in common, is fundamentally the wrong direction to be moving in. Last week, with the tragic murder of an MP by a far right “activist”, we’ve already had an example of what can happen when people are led down the path of hatred and division instead of friendship and co-operation. Let’s not go down that path as a nation.
I believe it’s going to be essential to have some sort of close international co-operation in order to solve the problems of the future. Issues such as climate change, tax avoidance and terrorism don’t stop at national borders. I would rather have a strong super-national body like the EU to help deal with those things than let them run rampant and unchecked; and I would rather it was a relatively democratic body with an elected parliament as well. The world has changed, and the challenges of today aren’t the challenges of 50 or 100 years ago. If we shut ourselves off from the world, those challenges aren’t going to go away, we’re just going to damage our ability to overcome them.