Tomorrow, the nation votes.
It seems to me this is a referendum about what kind of Britain we want to have, and believe we have. There is a vision of Britain which is stronger with many friends, which engages with the world around it, which enjoys a major role in the world’s most sought after club. There’s also a vision of Britain beset on all sides, overrun with immigrants, where there is not enough to go round, and if we don’t pull up the draw-bridge quickly, it will be too late.
I am solidly for the first vision. I have never heard of any nation that was weaker for having allies, nor richer for living in isolation, nor kinder for being more afraid.
Most of the arguments of Leave and Remain do little for me. I accept that we are likely to be damaged economically by leaving. However, if leaving were the right thing to do, I would be willing to accept the economic damage. I also accept that we don’t have as much freedom to do anything we want if we’re part of the club. If staying is the right thing to do, I don’t see why that should be a problem. I can’t think of any regulations that we have adopted from Europe that we wouldn’t have adopted on our own account anyway. Food safety, environmental safety, electrical safety and other forms of protection are what good governments do.
There are some arguments which I don’t and can’t accept.
Britain is not overrun with immigrants, although, to be fair, it is entirely populated by people whose ancestors were, at some point, immigrants. Something like 92%-98% of the UK is not built on (it depends what you count). We have a housing problem in London, but London is the place where residents are most likely to see the benefits of an international, multi-cultural society. As you move away from London, we have whole areas of the country which are less populated than they used to be. The reason that we welcome so many people from other countries is that we have far more work that we want done than people willing to do it. That has always been the reason why we have welcomed immigrants. It has not changed.
The British way of life, and British values, are also not being overrun by foreigners—unless we see small-mindedness and fear of the other as part of our way of life. Culture is changing. Maybe it’s changing for the worse (these things are hard to measure), but the big influences on cultural change are not shops selling Polish sausages, but the influence of American television and the all pervasive power of the world wide web. Not that we should ban the world wide web, which was, after all, a British invention, and probably epitomises the best of our values and way of life: free discussion, the freedom to express opinion, the freedom to put forward new ideas and the make the case for them.
It is the freedom to put forward ideas which is most important to me in this debate. At the moment, I can travel anywhere in the European Union and make the case for my politics, my faith, and even my favourite kind of music. I could open up a pancake house in Bruges, or a shop selling Union Jack t-shirts in Madrid. Naturally, people from elsewhere can do the same thing here, but, somehow, they don’t: the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon are not full of traders selling Spanish flags, nor are the empty shops in Evesham being swallowed up by chains of Czech furniture makers. When people do travel to other countries and start to trade, we all benefit. Their natural inclination is not to. Given the choice, it’s something we should encourage.
I’m a committed Christian, and I spent the first third of my career (so far) as a cross-cultural Christian worker in Belgium, what used to be termed (and for all I know, in some circles, still is), a ‘missionary’. We didn’t have pith helmets, mosquito nets or arduous journeys round Cape Horn to get there, nor did we attempt to educate the locals in the British way of life (though, to be absolutely fair, from Hudson Taylor on, that’s not what traditional missionaries did, notwithstanding the Carry-on film stereotypes). I was there before the EU happened, and afterwards. Before, we found that every minor official who didn’t like the case we were making, or us being there at all, had a thousand ways of holding us back—from mislaying our residence permit applications (someone once told me I had not provided the six photos I needed while she was actually holding them in her hand) to demanding that we show our valid performance permits at a police station three kilometres distance. From 1993, after the EU treaty came in, all of that changed. We were free to move as easily as we would have been in Britain.
I am not asking for any special considerations for Christianity. If you are a Brexiter, and you have been arguing as a non-Christian for more protections for Christians, please do not do so on my account. I believe both passionately and rationally that the New Testament faith is persuasive enough to merely need an opportunity of explanation. I don’t need my ‘British’ Christianity (as if Christianity was British anyway) to be protected from anyone.
If you are a Christian, I’ve recently done a debate with Stephen Green, a prominent Brexiter. You can watch it (for free) on YouTube, here.
I’m also a democrat. As it happens, I’m a Liberal Democrat. People have often told me that Europe is somehow weakening our democracy, and we must therefore leave it. Two things trouble me about this. First, most of these people were adamantly opposed to our attempt to reform British democracy with a referendum during the last parliament. If democracy really was their main issue, they should have supported us. Second, the European Union is already much more democratic than the UK. True, we have an unelected Commission, but the leaders of the Commission are appointed by our elected leaders, and ratified by the parliament. The function of the Commission is essentially the same as our civil service—except that the Commission is tiny in comparison to ours. Its size compares with a mid-sized city council. The Parliament is fully elected, and is much more democratic in its electoral system than ours is. There are no safe-seats—the bane of our democracy—in the EU parliament. The European Council, which is the third part, is made up of our prime minister and the corresponding positions from other countries. All of them are elected, because non-democratic nations cannot join the EU. The Council is the equivalent of our Cabinet, and it is exactly as democratic in the way it is appointed, and more democratic in the way it operates. What Europe doesn’t have is an unelected House of Lords. I have some very good friends in the House of Lords, and they are fine people, and the House does good work, but it is not democratic.
What I struggle with most when people talk about democracy is my feeling that they don’t mean ‘democratic’ at all. They are secretly fearful that all of the Czechs, Germans and Spanish will gang up on us and vote through a plot to ban British produce, or to eject our football fans from their stadiums. But that is how democracy works. The moment you allow democracy, you create the possibility that a lot of other people will vote for something you don’t like. As a Liberal Democrat, I’m well used to this. Even when we got 24% of the vote in 2010, we still got less than 10% of the seats, and were thus powerless in many cases to stop the Tory agenda, though, as you can see now, what we did stop was well worth stopping. The thing is, the alternative to democracy is some kind of dictatorship (by whatever name) or an oligarchy. The people who run society can still do things you don’t like, but you have no recourse, no matter how many of you there are, to stopping them.
The final thing which troubles me that I often hear is that we are somehow opening the doors to Muslim extremism by allowing Turkey into the EU. This is troubling on many levels.
First, the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists, and even most of those who would seem ‘extreme’ to us are not violent. While I was living in Ghent, Belgium, my wife sent my to pick up a copy of the Qu’ran from a local Turkish mosque. The trouble was, it was a mosque of the sect known as the Grey Wolves, the most fanatical Muslim sect in Turkey, and it was in the middle of the first Gulf War. They were absolutely charming to me, gave me a cup of tea, and engaged me (slightly to my alarm) in an utterly reasonable conversation about Saddam Hussein. These were people who believed passionately in what they believed, but they were not remotely advocating violence. The vast majority of Muslims are non-violent. In today’s world, you are far more likely to die by falling off a ladder than in a terrorist attack. Our fear of terrorism (which terrorism is designed to create, hence the name) has led us to a completely irrational assessment of the risk.
Second, there is absolutely no likelihood of Turkey joining the EU, now, or ever. As long as Greece as a veto, which it will always do, Turkey cannot continue to occupy part of Cyprus and expect EU membership. What’s more, there are some 35 criteria which Turkey has to meet before it can join. These include things such as human rights and democratic government. I doubt that Turkey will ever meet them, but even if it met half of them, as part of its road map to an eventual application, it would be a country completely transformed. What we have failed to do in eight hundred years of armed conflict will have been achieved purely through peaceful means.
Third, the idea that we should allow unfounded fear of things which might potentially happen in the future is utterly paralysing, and should never play any part in our national decision-making. If we reason from fear, then there is an infinite variety of terrors ahead of us. Nations have gone to war in the past simply out of the fear that their competitors will do the same. The arms-race which led up to the First World War was fuelled by such fears, as was the complex network of military alliances which turned it from a local to a global conflict. The Cold War was half a century of fear—a twilight era to which we should hope never to return.
I am IN, because I see hope, not fear, as the basis for a better future. I believe in times of plenty we should build a longer table, not a higher wall. I believe that the freedom to go wherever we wish and say whatever we wish is far more valuable than freedom from regulation about the size of eggs.