Despite my deep European experience and connections (as well as affections), I decided early on in the referendum campaign to treat it like a real debate and listen to the arguments. The whole point of a debate is that those involved should listen and, if appropriate, be willing to change their mind. I wanted to be open to being persuaded either way. Consequently, apart from a couple of general observations about the nature and terms of the debate on the Reimagining Europe blog, I decided not to campaign for either side.
I then intended to put my personal conclusions into writing here around ten days before the referendum itself – on the grounds that after that there would be little or nothing to say or hear that had not already been said or heard. Then, when I was about to do it, Jo Cox MP was murdered in Birstall, West Yorkshire by a man who, in court, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. In the light of this, and wondering what would actually constitute a “free” Britain, I have pondered further.
I had intended to do a longer piece, arguing my points thoroughly. I no longer have the stomach for it – and, anyway, I am now too busy with other things. So, I will keep this brief and to the point, but also point to the Bishop of Chelmsford's excellent and thoughtful piece as the context-setter for what follows here.
Baroness Brady wrote in the Sun – and I think she encapsulates very succinctly and well the struggle many people feel between head and heart – that her heart is saying:
I love my country, I want to protect it. We don't want anyone telling us what to do and we'd be OK on our own.”
And there, I think, is the crunch. A mature country, like a mature human being, is open to seeing itself as it is seen from the outside, and then learning from that. A country that can be interdependent is one that is confident in itself – confident enough to learn from others, to look at itself critically through the eyes of others, and big enough to know that no country “is an island, entire of itself”. It is big enough to hold others to account and to be held to account.
The campaign itself has been depressing beyond words. Project Fear was not a monopoly exercise on either side. But, what pushed me to the limit was the irresponsible quoting of figures and promises that were baseless in fact and unarguable in reality. 'Facts' turn out actually to be assertion or mere opinion. For example, taking the economic statements:
- Trade deals require at least two parties. Assuming that, were the UK free to negotiate its own deals – as if this can be done independently and in isolation – it is entirely possible that the other parties will ultimately not allow us the best deals for us and on our preferred terms. In fact, countries we have slagged off for being incompetent and corrupt might not forget this when dealing with us in the future. It cannot be assumed that negotiations will always land us with the best deal – and the promise that we will get our own way is questionable on a number of grounds. As Wolfgang Schäuble said with typically German clarity: “In is in, out is out”. It takes two to tango and the other's affections cannot be taken for granted.
- Access to the single market will require that we obey the conditions the EU will impose (including free movement, etc.), pay the money accordingly, but allow us no vote in the setting of the rules or voice at the table when they are being set. If anything is “undemocratic”, surely that is – it is better to be at the table where our voice can count.
But, the economic arguments are not the most important ones for me. No one can promise what will happen if we stay or of we go. Boris Johnson can say with total confidence (as he did last week) that “Yorkshire will thrive like never before if we vote to leave the EU”, yet he can offer not one shred of evidence that this will be the case, what it might look like or on what basis he can state it as bold fact. I would be interested to hear the argument, but none is offered because none can be made. It is all speculation and wishful thinking. So is much of the Remain case for what might happen if we do vote to leave. This is unaccountable sloganising for emotional impact; it just has little to do with reality.
Furthermore, as relatively little has changed in the banking system since the crash of 2008, it is little wonder that predictions of a further major crash are now coming thick and fast. The threats to the British people come not from membership of the EU, but from the same old sources: a financial system that has not been fundamentally amended since 2008, a growing rift between the rich and poor across the globe, conflicts to which we have all been party, and an increasing disconnect between populations and the political classes.
We know that security cannot be assured in isolation. If we are to be secure, then we also have to look to the security and interests of those alongside whom we live. Britain cannot look to its own security in isolation from the wider continent and the wider world. A fragmentation of Europe – which happened a century ago as the archetype of the Law of Unintended Consequences of series of small decisions that, together and uncoordinated, caused a world war – is entirely possible again. The UK will be affected by what happens elsewhere. The EU is the institution to hold the thing together politically so that we do not find ourselves having to react to decisions made elsewhere over which we have had no say because we have no accountable institutional relationship. Leaving the EU might sound attractive for the UK for certain reasons, but what then happens in the EU (and on the continent of Europe) will impact on our islands: we cannot simply draw up the bridge and pretend we can be secure alone, thrive alone.
The dismissal of 'elites' by… er… elites is bizarre. The constant belittling of 'experts' is both miserable and inane – especially when the same politicians will be building their political cases on the support of experts from next Friday onwards. Migration is a global phenomenon and it will not cease to impact the UK if we vote to leave. The debate has used migration in a way I hoped had been left in the 1930s; few of those who speak of it have actually been out of the comfort of England to see the reality lived with in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya. For years migration has been a toxic subject in our public discourse, Concerns are real; domestic solutions cannot be found in isolation from the global.
“Take back control” sounds marvellous, doesn't it? Yet, it assumes we do not have control of our country. Is that true? If so, in what way? Shared sovereignty is not the same as lost sovereignty. Decisions made in the EU are not done to us, but with us. Yet, the rhetoric pretends that we are victims of powers beyond our control – as if we were absent.
Like many others, I am not blind to the need for substantial reform of the EU institutions. Its democratic accountability and financial probity need serious attention. We can only drive these if we are at the table, holding others to account. I believe we need to be in if we are to hold others in. And, contrary to much of the Brexit discourse, we cannot cannot uphold the interests of Britain without paying attention to the interests of our neighbours and listening to their critique of us. Not always getting our own way is not the same as being subject to a lack of democratic process.
Finally, the language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.
So, everyone must come to their own conclusions on Thursday. Promises and predictions made on both sides should be weighed for their realism and integrity: are they wishful (or fearful) thinking, or are they rooted in something accountable in some way? And how might they be subject to “events” that will inevitably confound both the promises and predictions made before “events” happen? I respect the judgements people will make – there are cogent arguments on both sides, even if these have largely been sunk beneath the tide of bile and sloganising that has characterised this dreadful campaign.
I conclude (as there isn't time to do this properly) with an observation. Closely connected with churches in other EU countries, we will continue – whichever way the vote goes – to work with humility and without hubris for reconciliation and closer relationships with our neighbours. Christian theology might not indicate which way people should vote on Thursday, but it does set a context for hopeful (rather than fearful) imagination; it demands that we do not misrepresent our neighbour's case (the ninth Commandment); it calls for the establishment of relationships of love and grace; it opens up the possibility of generosity and security rooted in a recognition of our mutual humanity; and it calls us to pay attention to the constant and ongoing need for mercy and hope.
I will vote to remain in the European Union. And I will do so because I want to ask not just what Europe can do for us, but for what we can do for Europe … and that means being committed to the European Union.
Whichever way we vote, and whichever way the vote goes next Thursday, who and how will we be on Friday?