Our future in Europe
Who hasn’t told us what they think? Ian Botham has spoken, and so has the Prime-Minister of New Zealand. Barack Obama has invested his eloquence in the Remain campaign; and Boris Johnson has lent his exuberance to Exit. But despite the chorus of celebrities, this is not a decision for ‘experts’ or parliament, but instead for the public as a whole – fifty million individuals, each with an equal weight – a referendum whose result will be the sum of the choices of each citizen. The public is making its mind up; and telling the politicians what to do.
The last sixty years have not been easy. When the European project was launched in the 1950s, we, Britain, refused to join; and spent a decade waiting for the project to collapse. When it became clear that the collapse wasn’t coming, we applied for membership. Only to be told that we weren’t wanted. General de Gaulle argued with a relish bordering on extreme rudeness, that Britain was not ready, because the British had not yet adjusted to the idea of being European, because we still saw ourselves as an island power, and because we were never going to accept the values of the community. So we invested the next ten years in trying to join a club that had rejected us as a member. And – once we were accepted – the following forty years wondering whether we had made a terrible mistake.
Perhaps because we have always half-worried that we had been somehow conned into the endeavour, we have rarely got the most out of the project. While the French and Germans sent their best civil servants to European institutions, and backed their careers, we did not make the investment in teaching our civil servants languages, or making sure they got the senior jobs. Even when we voted for European regulations, which were genuinely good for our health and our society – reducing Sulphur Dioxide and preventing acid rain from being blown across European borders – we implied these rules were simply imposed on us by Brussels. When we used British influence to improve standards across the EU – from animal welfare to Human Rights – we refused to take the credit.
So I had hoped that the referendum would give us the opportunity to finally make up our minds up about Europe: to commit to a life in or out, rather than to a half-life located nowhere in particular. Now, I realise I was overly optimistic. The last two months has taught me that whichever way we vote, Britain will probably always remain conflicted in our relationship to Europe. We are unlikely to ever have a clear decision or commitment, one way or another. Our traditional attitude – part fantasy, part victimhood, part pessimism – used to enrage me. But I am beginning to see it is not all bad. Our curious British attitude to Europe – call it what you will – has proved, over the last forty years, to have had some benefits. It has saved Britain from some of the more unrealistic proposals in Europe, such as British membership of the Euro. And it has often had a positive influence on other European states.
Britain’s focus on practical market measures has helped every European economy to perform much better after joining the EU, than it had in the decades before joining. All of us – from Sweden to Italy – are far wealthier than we were in the 1970s. We continue to help to make other members focus, not on misty aspirations, targets, or rules, but on exactly how much a measure would cost to implement, and exactly how much the benefit would be. British models of law and government have provided a model for Eastern European members – who have been through something little short of a miracle since 1989. And today, countries in the Balkans that could have been as poor and unstable as parts of Syria, are on track to be as stable and prosperous as the Czech Republic. Europe has influenced Britain. But we have shaped Europe in turn – making it more practical, and because it is more practical, more likely to last.
Personally, I have decided to vote to stay. I will do so because of things I care about it in this constituency such as financial support for small farmers and the environment (90 per cent of our lamb exports, go to Europe). I will also do so because of things I care about nationally, such as keeping Scotland in the Union. And I will do so because of things I care about outside Britain, such as European security. I find it better instinctively, as a rule of thumb, to build things together, rather than break them apart. But I have very close friends who disagree with me – some for romantic and some for very practical reasons – and who will be angry that I have written this, and will be voting to leave.
Ultimately, however, the point about a referendum is that my vote is worth no more or less than theirs. I can express a view, and cast a ballot – but the result is no longer up to parliament. And that is correct, because this is, in the end, a very personal question – reflecting very different attitudes to risk, to Europe, to our national identity, and to our future – which can only be made individually. I am pleased that this is a referendum, not a vote in parliament. The British public as a whole has very rarely been wrong, whether in elections or referendums. That is why I am content to wait for the public to make up its mind, and give us our marching orders, whatever they prove to be.