So the second referendum of the last two years is now scheduled for June 23.
If the Scottish Referendum was an emotional issue, the European Union debate seems to be a much more easily divided split between cerebral calculation for why we should stay versus a visceral, repressed rage at years worth of bureaucratic diktats.
Very few proponents of staying profess a belief in the ideals of the EU; not only does it sound corny but there is remarkably little by way of a British contribution (from all governments of different political stripes since 1975) to support its principle statements.
Of those who want to break away to pastures new, there likewise remains little articulation as to precisely what brave new world we would sink our teeth into if we left the European market. The world is shrinking. There are very few untapped markets, only untapped ideas. Sovereignty is largely a redundant myth in this globalised, digitised, mechanised world where the average UK citizen is more concerned with consumer power, the best deal and the fastest delivery than buying British.
For all this the EU only ever gets bad press. It is seldom reported as having done something good and it rather seems to be a perennial truth that if the EU appears in the press it’s usually discussing a controversy surrounding decisions in Brussels. Even if you argue that the absence of any Western European conflict since 1945 is a stunning feat for a continent rarely at peace in the last 1000 years, how often do people usually stop to marvel at the upward turn of history? This, for those who don’t live abroad, holiday often or have business dealings with Europe, makes walking away all the easier.
A vote to leave winning the day is a much more likely prospect than a vote for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom. Scotland leaving was too much of a gamble, an avant-garde political move with no Scottish precedent since 1707. Leaving the EU is a prospect that has been on the tip of the tongue for many since 1975, many who have never found romance in the European idea or fiscal benefit from greater integration. These people either remember life before 1975 or don’t see what all the fuss is about now, only that the ‘we should rule ourselves’ philosophy should trump any high-minded ideas which have offered no tangible benefit.
Many Conservative government ministers and senior political figures would seem to agree. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson MP, has committed a stunning political Hara-Kari (at least according to his father) by coming out in favour of leaving the European Union. His defection from the prime minister, David Cameron, has been heralded as a decisive factor for winning a vote to leave both because of Boris’ name recognition and a poll suggesting that 34 percent people valued his opinion on the matter (second only to Cameron).
With Conservative ministers being given a free vote on the referendum, it’s easy to see how in the run up to June a principled debate could become too focused on a UK Government in turmoil as its key figures faction off (or, if you’re keeping count, The Third Tory Civil War if you consider Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s EU woes).
For a real insight into the British attitude toward Europe in the months ahead, it’s the Eurovision which is the most indicative of British feelings to our continental neighbours. We participate, we watch and chortle at the perceived weirdness and the stereotypes of other cultures but we never truly engage in it. We’re sort of just there, awkwardly caught off guard as if we’re at a party where we don’t really know many people and are half-heartedly dancing until our real friends arrive.
This could well be the epitaph to our time in the EU if the referendum falls flat for Mr Cameron. Even if there are cries of celebration for those who want to take us out, 40 years is a long time to explain away. It’s even more difficult to do it to the countries you’ve walked out on when you’re trying to retain robust diplomatic, cultural and trade links. The pill to swallow can’t be sold as too smug and certainly not too bitter about having wasted the last half century. It’s going to be even more difficult for politicians of all stripes, particularly if it’s an overwhelming yes vote, to explain why it is they did nothing to remove us from the EU sooner if life (as it could turn out) was so great after all outside of it.
The lesson that must be taken from the Scottish referendum is that rewriting history does no one any favours. If an EU exit is more likely than Scottish independence was then no one should try and pretend the last 40 years were anything other than normal, decent and productive but they were just not, as it could turn out, our cup of tea.
What is certain is that much like a Scottish independence scenario, separation from the EU will require a period of negotiation. While it’s clear the emotional detachment from the EU would be less than Scotland leaving the UK, a period of practical as well as a narrative readjustment will be a requirement. The task is to ensure that positivity and not bitterness is the reigning attitude toward a continent that is not going to disappear just because we leave its governing political infrastructure.
Splendid isolation might well correspond to our historical ties to our European neighbours, but it does little to nothing to reconcile for 40 years participating in the European ideal. Did we abandon it? Did it fail? Is the EU condemned as an old building which should be rebuilt in this century? What is the British answer?
A perspective of ‘us and them’ cannot be allowed to ignite a jingoistic resurgence. The world is too small, our partners too near and our differences too small next to our commonalities to allow that. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is imperative that a national narrative is forged about what it is exactly we’ve been doing for 40 years. It was not, and cannot, be reduced simply to ‘we tried everything to change it and they let us down’. That would not be good for future relations, it’s a sleight which would not be forgiven and it would not be the truth.