I’ve been tempted to stay silent through the EU Referendum campaign here in the United Kingdom assuming, after last year’s depressing General Election result when 26% of the electorate voted in the incompetent government that has led us all the way here to the worrying final days of a national debate on Britain’s future which appears to pay very little attention to the complexities of the EU itself or the reasons for Britain being a member of that much criticised institution.
Let me put it clearly (as all obfuscating politicians, on both sides of the debate, keep repeating), I didn’t vote for this government and I disapproved strongly from the beginning in the idea of the referendum especially as the subject is particularly complex. I do, however, believe in parliamentary democracy. We hope to vote in MPs who will represent us and our interests and who will strive to unravel the very complexities that have so confused and worried the British people in the months building up to this week’s potentially nation-threatening referendum. We are the people, we want the best for the country but we’re not economists.
It was, I think, a major dereliction of duty, for the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to risk the future of the country for his own narrow interests in the future of the political party that he is currently leading. He now says it would be a disaster for the British economy and for the future of Britain to leave the EU. If he knew that then why did he risk such a disaster by asking us, unqualified economists all, to settle such an important issue with a simple yes or no poll? He was worried before the last General Election about the dangerous influence of the emerging UKIP leader Nigel Farage and the potential split that UKIP’s anti-European policies could have had on the election result and on the large number Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party.
Farage, of course, didn’t even get elected as an MP and only one of his party’s members did, but the damage had been done, he has been helped by the referendum debate, and we are now in risk of having to live with the consequences now that not only the Conservative Party but the nation has been plunged into a deeply unpleasant debate which has resulted in a shocking escalation of racist, jingoistic and simply incorrect opinions being banded around as if they were traditional British values which they most definitely are not.
Anyway, the referendum has been implemented, at an enormous financial as well as national cost, and it is too late now for Cameron to change his mind about what he must realise was just the most serious of a long list of mistakes he has made since becoming possibly the weakest Prime Minister in living memory. British politics too, since the General Election, has descended into a series of miscalculations and mistakes where any objective observer must wonder if Britain is actually capable of governing itself any more. The electorate, understandably underwhelmed and confused by its leaders, has sought consolation in single issue politics – the politics of simple solutions which ignore the complex nature of practical politics, economics, and international relations.
It has become too easy, in this party political vacuum, for easily digested emotional ideas to take on the form of concrete policy whether it be to the right or the left. In a democracy this is truly dangerous and it is even more so when major decisions are made by referendum. That is why we hear more outrage over that shot gorilla than we do for the four hundred thousand people who have been killed in Syria in the last five years. That is also why , if the polls are correct, a large number of British people think it is worth risking the collapse of the United Kingdom because they confuse the fate of fleeing refugees with an ill-thought through economic analysis of the effects of immigration on a nation. An analysis often based on the politics of hatred encouraged by UKIP and some of the nastier members of the Conservative Party.
I have been told many times, mostly by taxi drivers, that many people want to leave the EU because ‘they want their nation back,’ that they are frightened that immigration will ‘swamp’ traditional British values. Apparently, the Great Britain that they are nostalgic for actually existed. When questioned, that traditional Britain appears to mean white blokes in pubs free to be ‘politicly incorrect,’ a nation where everyone was a racially pure Englishman who ‘ruled the waves,’ and that was on the best possible terms with the former colonies of the British Empire, and where everyone was financially secure before those evil Europeans started to take all our cash. It doesn’t take much for people to pine for a past that never existed and which will never be created by leaving the EU.
Those pure-blooded Englishmen who lament Great Britain’s demise by being ‘swamped’ by other cultures, really do need to look at their history books. Being British in the 21st century is indeed something to be proud of and anyone whose family can be traced to the shores beyond the last two hundred years or so, can feel truly proud of their heritage, whether their DNA can be traced to the Ancient Britons who now live on the British Isles’ furthest extremities, or to the Roman, Viking, Danish, Anglo-Saxon or Norman French invaders who all in various quantities ultimately settled and intermarried with the peoples that they found here. It was the very mix in British blood that gave the nation its unique character that has benefited from modern developments and a forward-looking acceptance of change . Modern Britain continues to benefit from new ideas often coming from talented and energetic peoples who have fled from less fortunate nations.
Many of the problems associated with immigration are the consequences of failures in government. We are a rich nation that can well afford to house our peoples, educate them and look after them in sickness and in health. If a majority of voters worry about these issues, as they should, they should look to their elected politicians to make the changes in housing, education and health policies that would address these issues without putting the blame on immigration.
Similarly, if we don’t like the structure of the European Union then we, represented by our elected leaders at the council of Europe, should campaign to make the very necessary changes. I don’t particularly like my local town council but I don’t expect to abolish it and somehow live without it.
I went to York last weekend and, on Sunday, I visited York Minster with the express idea of hearing the excellent choir performing at the main services there. I must have been one of the few people in Britain to have failed to notice that all over the nation there were national celebrations of the Queen’s official 90th Birthday. It was true also in York Minster where the main event, at evensong, was Handel’s great coronation anthem, Zadok The Priest, the one with that magnificent long introduction which has thrilled anyone with ears to listen since the great German (nationalised English) composer, George Frederick Handel, first composed it for the coronation of the German Prince George as King George II of Great Britain in 1727. I’m not a royalist but, like many would-be republicans, I can still admire the elderly woman who has worn the crown as well as anyone ever could and, in that wonderful German music, I could recognise the deep emotions that we all wish to invest in the ideals of our land of birth and which Handel was so brilliant at evoking. I was moved not just by the music but by the reminder, in that wonderful French-style Gothic architecture, listening to the 16th Century English words of Archbishop Cranmer, that Britain should take full delight in its European inheritance and those promises of a great shared culture to come. Don’t knock the best about Britain, often it’s the best about Europe too, I thought, just think of Syria, and North Korea, if you think things are so bad.
York is a beautiful city, rightly proud of its inheritance – proud of the Roman and Viking invaders who were so influential in its creation. York is also a centre for new archaeological research into the ethnicity of those Romans who settled there and who settled even further north along the famous Hadrian’s Wall. It is now becoming clear that, far from being shivering Italians in sandals and mini-skirts, the Roman invaders and settlers of Britain mostly came from France and Germany and some even from Africa. Being a Roman, as the excellent Mary Beard has been recently stating in her BBC television series, did not mean being an Italian born in Rome. To be a Roman was to be a citizen of the largest and most successful union of peoples in the ancient world.
In York Minster that day, one of the Bible readings was from The Acts Of The Apostles, Chapter 21. Now these days, I’m always wary of people who quote Holy Scripture, they usually do it to reinforce their prejudices, but I was intrigued to hear this section about St Paul (not the most liberal of the saints) who had been arrested in Judaea for allegedly blaspheming against the Jewish religion. Whatever happened to St Paul in the end, on this occasion he was not convicted by Judaean law
because the Roman Governor of judea, Felix, found out that Paul was a Roman citizen.
‘And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?
When the centurion heard [that], he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman.
Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea.
And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was [free] born.
Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him. ‘
Now, when I hear all those complaints about the EU being undemocratic and how people want all legislation to be controlled by Parliament, I go back to that depressing General Election of last year and remember that only 26% of the electorate voted for this government. A government where its beleaguered leader struggles on a daily basis to avoid being pushed to the authoritarian right in his own party and who, as a result of the referendum campaign, whichever way it goes, is now severely weakened. If you like the sound of a right wing government then don’t relax too much either. Those of you that dread a Corbyn premiership, might also wish for another legislative tier. If Britain leaves the European Union, many Britons may well regret losing that right of redress that they once had in Europe.
I was reminded of the great Spanish painter Goya’s etching in an article in the Guardian newspaper last week and it was well chosen. The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters (1799). I am more than worried that not only has reason been allowed to sleep during this referendum campaign but that here and overseas, some of those monsters have already started to appear.
So, please vote, if you have a vote, for Britain to remain in the EU. Vote for the EU and then campaign with all your strength for the reforms that many citizens of the European Union would like too.
In case you need reminded about the glories of that Handel anthem, here’s Zadok The Priest as sung by the choir of Westminster Abbey. However ambivalent anyone is about the coronation elements, I for one will be singing the words to ‘let all the people rejoice, alleluia,’ if the nation votes as it should to celebrate this country and its rightful place in Europe on Thursday: