As a global citizen, I see my identity as primarily European. Thereafter, the United Kingdom trumps England and Lincolnshire (where I happen to live) in that order of hierarchy. As we approach the June 23rd referendum on EU membership, I find myself increasingly anxious and angry. On the whim of the mood of a portion of the electorate on a particular day, the United Kingdom may be plunged into an extended period of trauma and crisis – with the consequence that I, my children, and future generations, will be deprived of the ‘best’ elements of our identity for decades to come.
This blog has argued (sometimes implicitly) ‘the world is mad’ since its first postings five years ago. Re-reading my reflections on public policy insanities of 2011 (“The Devils caught in their Catch-22s…“) resonates strongly with the preposterous exercise Cameron has asked us to indulge, to supposedly help him heal the European pathologies of the Tory party.
This supremacy of short term tokenism over enduring principles, values and long term strategy makes me extremely angry.
On June 23rd voters will have the opportunity to answer the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. The answer (‘remain’ or ‘leave’) is NOT legally binding. Similar to the disingenuous character of the Scotland referendum, it represents an indicator of UK voter opinion at a moment in time.
I cannot predict what the turnout will be on 23rd June. However, it seems to me to be likely that it will be somewhere between the pitiful 15.1% turnout for the November 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and the impressive 84.6% turnout for the September 2014 Scotland ‘independence’ referendum.
The level of turnout should matter. Let us assume, for the moment, a closely fought campaign with a 55%-45% final result – either way. On the 15% PCC turnout, a ‘Brexit’ or a ‘Remain’ victory would have a mandate from 8.3% of eligible voters. On the 85% Scotland independence turnout, the mandate would still amount to under half (i.e. 46.5%) of eligible voters.
Short of an overwhelming result on a high turnout, Government, MPs, the House of Lords and the Queen need to exercise careful judgements to interpret and act on the referendum result.
Indeed, as someone with a European identity and UK citizenship, I place considerable weight on the argument that, unless the United Kingdom of all of the four ‘nations’ – so England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – vote for Brexit, one nation (e.g. England) does not have a mandate to impose a departure from EU institutions on the others.
In 2014, I expected Shetland and Orkney to oppose an affirmative Scotland independence vote constitutionally and judicially (with a reasonable chance of ‘victory’). Similarly, I hope the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland governments and communities use all the means at their disposal in the event the referendum result generates a frenzy of little-Englander imperialism on the rest of the UK. At the very least this would so complicate the Brexit negotiations that it will give at least one and probably 2-3 general elections to elect a Europe-facing national government.
What the referendum actually does, in the event of a Brexit simple majority, is give Government a mandate to serve a two year’s notice of intention to leave on the EU, and to commence negotiations (which might take much longer than two years) to bring that intention to fruition.
No nation state has ever tested the mechanism, and the terms of any agreement will have to be agreed by UK parliament and by all 27 other member states (in terms of successor relationships with EU institutions and with each of them bilaterally). I am not sure such an agreement is achievable. It is difficult to envisage scenarios where the EU institutions and all 27 member states will be generous and facilitative to enable an easy, amicable UK departure. That leaves us with unilateral departure – possible in law, but in practice a recipe for total, highly unpredictable, chaos.
It is self-evident why a European with UK citizenship is anxious about the referendum. My anxiety is increased hugely by a ‘remain’ campaign, closely-associated with a Prime Minister for whom political and popular support is shallow and fragile. Unfortunately, this ‘chancer’ tried and got away with it with the Scotland independence ‘trick’, and it is improbable he can pull this off again.
On the Brexit side, I have yet to meet or hear from a ‘leave’ campaigner who isn’t either a liar with a touch of evil, willfully reckless (normally for crude political ambition), a not very bright little-Englander, or a mix of all three. But, supported and given more than equality of coverage by swathes of a collusive populist media, this shameful coalition has a large enough armoury of sound bites to get out the UKIP-apologist but relatively disinterested English voter on June 23rd. And it is very difficult to have a sensible debate with this pervasive character of ‘Brexiter’ – I’ve tried down the local pub!
Cameron bringing the UK to the brink of breakdown and break up (yet again), this time as a cowardly response to the UKIP-apologist wing of his party, reinforces my anxiety with intense anger. The contrived machinations of Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson and their ilk are what one might expect of these career Tory politicians. But the failures of the media to consistently damn their duplicities further raises choleric tempers. And, as I consider the prospects of an outburst of June 24th Farage-Johnson-Gove triumphalism, anger turns to intense rage.
It is at these moments that my European identity is of most comfort and benefit. Of course Europe, and our institutions, are far from perfect. Of course, they need progressive and radical reforms. But the willingness to work collaboratively with those of different nations and cultures is the essence of modern European identity. The ability to find, agree and then deliver solutions (even when they are only ‘good enough’ rather than perfect) makes EU and European institutions worth the efforts of membership, through all the frustrations and compromises.
I also like to believe that this ‘European’ way of working and living – value driven, but engaging collaboratively across many spectrums to actually make a difference – has provided the positive foundations of my professional and personal life.
My family home has been in Navenby Lincolnshire since 1993. But, in this parochial community, I am never regarded as a genuine ‘local’ or as a ‘Lincolnshire Yellowbelly’! I have been a UK citizen all of my life. But with a family tree of immigrant grandparents, I can never think of myself as a little-Englander, and can only embrace a multi-cultural and outward-facing British identity.
Whatever the result on June 23rd, and from wherever in the world thereafter I practice my profession and live my life, I shall always, though, strive to be a proud, constructive and progressive European.