Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Fear, Hope and the EU Referendum

I made up my mind months ago how I will be voting in Thursday’s EU referendum. 

However, despite the barrage of campaign literature through our letterbox and the wall-to-wall coverage on TV, the truth is that I feel very uninspired by either side of the argument; after all, the European Union was not something that I had ever spend a large amount of time thinking about. The conduct of the referendum campaigning hasn’t helped to fire my passion for either side. In fact, the way the campaign has been conducted could be argued to have shown democracy at its worst. 

Last week’s horrific murder of Jo Cox showed us all something of the common decency and dedicated service of many MPs, both through Jo Cox’s exemplary but all too short career as a parliamentarian but also through the way that politicians of all parties have shown their collective solidarity with her family and each other; indeed, yesterday’s recall of parliament to pay tribute to Jo was one of the most moving sessions I have ever witnessed.

However, the way that the referendum has been fought is in stark contrast to the way that politicians and the nation have come together to mourn the loss of Jo Cox. The referendum campaign has showed us the ugly side to politics, as J. K. Rowling has written about in a recent blog. She eloquently describes how both the Leave and Remain campaigns have resorted to fear tactics to try and win the day, and of how both campaigns have created monsters to win their arguments. Leave tell us of an EU that is corrupt, undemocratic and allows uncontrolled immigration into the UK, whereas Remain warn of an apocalyptic financial meltdown if Brexit happens. 

British and EU Flags
Photo: Dave Kellham. Under Creative Commons License
What I have found throughout the campaign is the lack of serious engagement with real issues. There has been claim and counter-claim. Remain will claim something and Leave will simply dismiss the argument by saying something along the lines of ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.’ Or a high-profile figure comes out for Leave and Remain replies ‘well, we all knew that so-and-so supported leave all along.’ Then throughout the campaign, the claims on both sides have got wilder and wilder. David Cameron has suggested that a Brexit might lead to World War III and Boris Johnson has claimed that the EU currently prevents bananas from being sold in more than threes! If you ask me, the whole campaign is bananas. Then or course there is the more sinister side to the campaign. Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster, featuring lines of non-white migrants queuing up to enter the EU, was a particularly low low for the campaign, and if - and it is a big if - if the murder of Jo Cox really was an act of political violence stoked up by the referendum campaign then that would be a damning indictment of how the campaign was run. Read Alex Massie’s excellent article in the Spectator for more on the consequences of irresponsible rhetoric in public life.

What the British public needs is not rhetoric, name calling, half-truths and fear. Instead, we need a sense of hope. Whatever happened to the politics of hope? Eight years ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United State claiming ‘Yes we can.’ Perhaps he couldn’t do all he hoped but the aspiration was there. Now, whether we’re Leave or Remain, we should cast our vote based on hope, not on fear. Sadly too many people will be voting Leave based on a fear of migration and too many people will vote Remain based on a fear of the economic consequences of Brexit. While these fears are real and should be addressed, I think we need a narrative of hope to rescue our politics.

So what I would have wanted to see during this campaign is the opposite of what we have seen. I would have wanted a far more positive case on both sides of the argument. I would have wanted to hear about the moral and social case for leaving and for staying. And I would have wanted the debate conducted with dignity, integrity and with grace. Sadly, it took the murder of a young wife and mother on the streets of Birstall for us to see the best of our politicians. Let us hope that, whatever the result on Thursday, our politics, our politicians and our nation will be able to develop a narrative of hope that transcends our fear.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’ll be voting to remain.

I’m aware that the European Union is far from perfect, but no-one is truly an island - not even our island nation. We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent. Nation states should not purely be looking after their own self-interests and instead we should have genuine solidarity with other nations. The EU has many flaws and is in desperate need of reform but I think that Britain will be more of a benefit to a dangerous and unstable world from within the EU than without.

[If anyone wants to read more about what a reformed EU could look like then check out Ben Ryan's Theos Report 'A Soul for the Union.']

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