Britain and Europe: The Long View

Followers of this blog will know that one of my pet hates is the obsession modern politicians have with short-termism. And hence the name of this blog: In the Long Run. Over the past few months my posts have mostly been about my new books, our farm and our garden, with the occasional foray into reviews and the like. Meanwhile, out there in the supposedly real world of British politics, the EU In/Out Debate has become more shrill, personal, unpleasant and BORING! It has got so bad that whenever I hear that predicable, manufactured word ‘Brexit’, I turn the radio off. So why has it all gone so horribly wrong?

The Debate has lost its way quite simply because the journalists and politicians who populate the Westminster Bubble are only concerned with five-year parliaments and anything more distant than the next, or indeed the last election, is irrelevant. But surely, the EU Referendum is about the long-term? It has been in existence for over half a century and, with luck, should continue for at least that time, or longer. Even politicians have said that In/Out is the decision of a lifetime, or a generation. And yet they behave like it’s a change in customs rates, or taxes – and nothing else. Can’t they understand, any of them, that it’s far more important than that? The existence of the EU has links to everything, from farming, to academia, from terrorism, to geo-politics and Russian ambition, to the migrant crisis and world trade. Quite simply, the EU is about the way we govern ourselves and government is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. So we should take it seriously.

I think we have all heard Out campaigners declare that the EU is like the Roman Empire. One or two slightly more informed pundits have compared it to Charlemagne or the Holy Roman Empire and I’ve even heard Napoleon’s name bandied about. Of course all of these are wide-of-the-mark. The empires of the past came about by conquest or dynastic take-over. None of them was even remotely democratic – although in the later Roman Empire some provinces did manage to acquire a degree of autonomy. Are the United States a closer parallel? Yes, they are, but they began with three unifying factors: a wish to leave the British Empire, the English language and Christianity. They were also blessed with some extraordinary leaders and thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, both of whom took the Long View, of history and the future.

In perhaps over-simplified historical terms, the EU arose out of the ashes of not one, but two, closely-linked, World Wars. At the heart of both conflicts was the age-old rivalry of France and Germany – albeit rather reluctantly aided and abetted by Britain. When the fighting stopped, the people of the original nations of what was to become the EU, had had enough of conflict that resolved nothing and merely fuelled old resentments. Their politicians realised this and some of them had the intelligence and foresight to appreciate that something altogether different was now needed. And they also had the good sense to start slowly, with a customs union; then the rest followed from that. By the time Britain joined, in 1973, the institutions of the EEC were well-developed. And they’ve continued to grow since then. Of course many regard the modern EU as far too bureaucratic – which it undoubtedly is. But we can address this problem through the ballot box. We do not need to destroy the entire system.

Taking a long view, it seems to me that the EU is a completely new form of governance. True, it is still far from perfect, but its presence on the world’s stage is enough to frighten the likes of Putin. On the other hand its constitution is sufficiently flexible to accommodate countries as diverse as Italy, Romania, Germany and Britain. More to the point, it works. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that it was Britain who played a big part in laying out the European Convention on Human Rights. Such concerns were not a major feature of the empires I mentioned earlier. The point I’m trying to make is that the modern world is complex; people are better educated and they are aware they have rights. It seems to me that the EU is a form of governance that has its roots in the modern world. It respects national and individual interests, while providing the other services (education, infrastructure, defence and security) that we all expect of government. In other words, the EU is about far, far more than trade and commerce alone. Yes, such things are, and have been, central to its creation, but they no longer dominate. Today the EU is becoming more rounded and balanced as an organisation. And that brings me back to where I began: namely, the Debate and what it says about British politics.

Frankly, sensible debate has stopped and has been replaced by a slanging match, mostly centred around a very right-wing agenda which is almost entirely based on xenophobia. Immigrants and migration are the only two issues that the Brexit camp seem to care about. Indeed, talking to friends and colleagues I get the impression that they, too, are now heartily fed-up with the trivial way this highly important Referendum is being discussed. There is also a strong feeling that the debate has been taken over by loud-mouthed men in suits, and I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t felt patronised by those ghastly battle-busses – the creations of highly-paid PR consultants. I’m not a member of the Green Party myself, and I find some of their ideas impossibly naïve, but their MP Caroline Lucas was absolutely right when back in January she pointed out that the voices of women and younger people simply weren’t being heard in a Referendum that is supposedly about everyone’s future. If anything, the situation since then has got even worse.

Sadly, I don’t suppose for one moment that the loud-mouthed Westminster MPs (plus hangers-on, like Farage) will suddenly start to focus on the long-term implications of the Referendum. They are too deeply rooted in what is essentially a Victorian party-political and Parliamentary system, which is itself in far more urgent need of reform than any EU institution. So my appeal is to younger voters, who in my experience often share the views I have expressed here. And my message is simple:

Please, please VOTE!

That is all that matters. And tell your friends, too. I firmly believe that if we in Britain are ever to change our creaking, non-representative political system, it will be from within, not outside, Europe. Despite what some would have us believe, Brexit wouldn’t mark a return to a glorious past, so much as a dismal future, where our principal legacy would be the destruction of a truly innovative system of multi-national government.

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