Britain and Europe Opinion: A Plea for A United Kingdom
PHOTO: Rally outside the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday
Robert Watt, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Birmingham, writes for EA:
On June 24, 2016, for the first time in my life, I felt that the UK might not my country.
The first placard that confronted me when I awoke to the BBC’s coverage of the breaking news that Britain had voted to leave the European Union was the remark of a Leave supporter:
I am not European I am British.
My immediate thought:
Nay! I am Scottish, I am British. and I am European.
Why? For me, the decision to leave Europe made no sense from an economic, political, or historic point of view. It solves none of the problems for which many perceive the EU is to blame.
Even outside the EU, the UK will still need access to the Single Market for its economic future. Because there is no reason why the EU will allow this without imposing the same conditions as we had before — notably that of free movement — the key difference will be that Britain will have no say at all in the future decision-making process in Brussels. Can anybody explain to me why this is a good idea?
In no time at all, the UK has gone from the second-largest economy in Europe to the third-largest. More importantly, we have lost our triple-A rating; something we managed to hold on to despite the recent financial crisis.
Politically, I do not understand the wisdom of putting an extreme amount of pressure upon Scotland’s relationship with the UK, two years after a closely-fought referendum for independence. Neither do I understand why we would burden the Northern Ireland peace process by threatening to re-instate a hard border between the North and the Republic of Ireland.
I am deeply saddened that so many 18-24 year olds, who voted to remain in Europe, have effectively been told that their vision of the future — and they are our future —- as a nation is not to be. Equally depressing are the low numbers of youth who elected to vote in what will be probably the most important decision in my lifetime.
I am also thoroughly angered by the clear falsehoods presented by some of the Leave campaign, particularly the ideas that Brexit will not involve severe economic pain (since many of us in the public and small business sectors have gone through more than enough of this since 2008) and that concerns about immigration can be simply dealt with by quitting the EU. We could make our objections, but since there was no precedent and thus no example of the dangers, Leave simply dismissed these claims as Project Fear.
The Peril of Nationalism
Being Scottish, with an English mother, I have always been very wary of nationalisms. Now the apparent increase in abuse of and attacks upon “non-English/British” targets, whether people or businesses, is beyond disturbing. Our grandparents did not object to Poles, Czechs, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, French, and others arriving to carry on the fight against the most appalling visions for the future of Europe that one can imagine.
Please do not try to tell me that the current EU’s conception of Europe is in any way close to this past threat. Instead, be wary of any arguments which suggest this is the case. Economic hardship can breed such utter contempt for our fellow human beings. The rise in hate crime statistics — highlighted by rights activists like the late MP Jo Cox — can only remind a historian of the dark days of the 1930s.
Edward Bond in his poem “If” said, “We must create a new culture or cease to be Human.” With Brexit leading to an increase in attacks on perceived “foreigners” and minorities, I am reminded of the opening lines of Bond’s poem:
If Auschwitz had been in Hampshire
There would have been Englishmen to guard it
To administer records
Work the gas ovens
And keep silent.
The European Union has its problems and needs reform, but leaving the EU is more likely to undermine our sense of humanity as a nation. I do not think that the attempt to create some form of European culture has come near the end of its shelf-life.
From a historic point of view, the history of immigration is the history of the British Isles. Fear of newcomers and the threats they might pose are nothing new. In the 13th century, John of Wallingford alleged that the Vikings…
…thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.
In today’s extremist parlance, one could rephrase this as “look at these bloody Vikings coming over here and stealing our women”. But the British Isles seem to have survived such a terrifying onslaught. The Vikings did not just innovate in personal hygiene; they also tapped the British Isles into the biggest regional (and beyond) trading network since Roman times. They started the revival of urban centers — local councils today are the descendants of Viking military councils. When permanent settlements were established, the concept of the Althing — a form of Parliament where all free men could speak — set out influential elements of what we call democracy today.
Indeed, most of the key moments of the British Isles’ role in democratic governance since 1085 AD involves the inclusion of greater numbers of people. This has been a long road from the Domesday Book to Magna Carta through Simon De Montfort’s parliament in 1265, the debate over the divine rights of kings in the 16th and 17th centuries, 1500s to 1600s, the Reform Acts, Chartists, and the Suffragettes.
The one major failure for the UK in this millennial project was the refusal of the plea for no taxation without representation and attempting to exclude (rather than include) the rights of the American colonists. One cannot help but wonder if the UK’s decision to leave the EU is a mistake of similar magnitude.
“We Cannot Look Inward”
Looking outward is what made the UK a global success from the 18th to the mid-20th Centuries. Turning inward, pointing at the “enemy within”, and trying to put up walls against the “enemy without” is not going to permit Britain to effectively engage with the EU, let alone the global economy. Our only hope, if Brexit does happen, is the adoption of an outward-looking “Dunkirk Spirit” with a concerted effort to avoid two fortified Remain or Leave camps and to all pull together whatever creed, ethnicity or affiliation. Those of us residing in the UK, whether citizens or aspiring to be British, simply cannot afford to turn on ourselves in these challenging times.
It is clear that there have been and are many people in this country who have been abandoned by both Labour and Conservative parties, not just recently but over four decades. They have not seen much prosperity and are not usually able to make a difference in a representative democracy. This one time they had the opportunity to believe that they have a voice. The outcome was not only a vote on membership of the EU but also a comment upon the basic lack of political acumen amongst those we elect to govern us.
David Cameron had no need to call such a referendum and will probably be remembered as the worst British Prime Minister that history has witnessed. Boris Johnson made a political miscalculation that he could show his Euro-sceptic credentials for party leadership by running a Brexit campaign which narrowly failed. And Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn? I am most disappointed in him with his “7 1/2 out of 10” grudging support for the Remain campaign, an abandonment of a EU ally in his supposed commitment to employment rights, social welfare, and health.
For me, the last time this country faced a major crisis was in the summer of 1940. It was a coalition of political parties which got us out of this mess, with enough members of that coalition understanding that the poorest in the country had more than proved their worth. As a result we won the Welfare State, the Education Act, the commitment to community. Whatever happens in the wake of the vote to Leave, we need a leadership culture that understands the need to lead the country as well as their political party. We cannot afford to leave sections of our society behind.
A great Apache leader, Victorio, said:
Every struggle, whether won or lost, strengthens us for the next to come. It is not good for people to have an easy life. They become weak and inefficient when they cease to struggle. Some need a series of defeats before developing the strength and courage to win a victory.
If we are to win this struggle and ultimately emerge the stronger we cannot afford to build walls and look inward as a nation. The politics of intentional exclusion or unintentional neglect may work in the short term but has never thrived in a genuine democracy.
I am Scottish, I am British and I am European.