It’s with such ease that we forget the dramatic changes that have taken place over recent decades. Post-war the dividing lines were drawn across Europe. That separation of East and West almost brought us to the point of mutually assured destruction. I remember a conversation with a Belgium colleague who had done national service. The cold practicality of their predicament was haunting. He told me: we knew that if anything happened our job was to stand guard but that within about 5 minutes it would all be over.
Let’s be thankful that a strong desire for democracy and prosperity led to the fall of communist regimes across Europe. The European Union played its part in that transformation. By presenting an example of democratic cooperation it gave the former communist countries hope for the future. The EU provided much needed assistance in rebuilding infrastructure across Europe. Effectively connecting East and West so that we can live and work together.
Driving from Staines to Somerset to Scotland and back is a great way to get a perspective on the great diversity that is the UK. Different landscapes, different histories and different cultures. Our Union is a fantastic mix. It’s a testament to the value of respecting local identity at the same time as being part of something bigger. Not so shocking to make such an observation. I’d like to extend that thinking to Europe. Being part of a union in Europe makes us bigger rather than smaller. Brexit advocate imagine pulling up the drawbridge and hunkering down on this island. I can’t help thinking that this is so unnatural to the British character and experience as to be repulsive.
Reading Michael Gove’s recent speech there was so much of the politicians trick of blaming the bad on “them” and heralding the good as solely being “us”. Then there was the magic that everyday will be Christmas if only we run away from our European Union. Even more unrealistic was the idea that we could independently match the US on research and innovation spending. It’s not that I’m surprised by any of this fear mongering followed by offers of utopia. I just hope that the vast majority of people can see through Gove’s utopia for what it is.
With impending failure looming the referendum LEAVE camp seems to be stepping up the level of abuse and misrepresentation on social media. There’s a never mind the facts attitude. If people don’t agree we will just shout louder. Repeating endlessly statements already proven to be wrong. The problem with this approach to campaigning is it starts to become bullying and intimidation. Maybe that’s the intention but surely one of the British qualities that are so often promoted is that of fair play. Expression like; it’s just not cricket remind us that so many of the rules and regulations of sport originate from the UK. So, are the LEAVE campaigners undermining the very thing you might expect them to be defending? I do care about the facts. I believe we should argue with dignity and humility. And if statements are in error or just plain wrong they should be withdrawn.
Yesterday Strode’s College in Egham held an EU referendum debate. About 300 students filled their sports hall on what was a rainy afternoon. I’d participated in an excellent election debate in the same hall last year. It was good to be back.
I shared the platform with Royal Holloway History Professor Justin Champion, Diane James UKIP MEP for the South East and Kwasi Kwarteng MP for Spelthorne. Also, two student representative put the case on either side of the argument. Questions came thick and fast from the students and included the topics of: Democracy, Scotland, Tourism, Taxation, Currencies, Free Movement, Trade, Culture and Voting at 16. Everyone understood that this was a once in a generation opportunity to voice an opinion on EU membership.
On the leave side; UKIP painted a picture of “them” and “us”. Always hostile to the EU. Viewing the UK as always being ganged up on by others who are intent on creating a super state.
Spelthorne’s Tory MP emphasised that we were a trading nation long before the EU came along. For him trade within the EU was not vital to the UK when compared with the rest of the world.
On the remain side: Justin Champion reminded us all our European cultural roots. He did not wish to see the UK become a big gated community. The debate is not just about economics.
I took 3 points to make in my 3-minute introduction: For Europe to be a force for good in the world – promoting peace and stability. To grow the single market to prosper and to have a global impact as we forge ahead in science and technology.
Just as for the Strode’s students this is a first for me too. I was too young to get a vote in 1975. The decision we make in a few weeks will shape our world for the next 40 years.
At the end of the debate, the students were asked to vote on whether they think the UK should remain in or leave the European Union. The result is awaited.