Afternoon Dust

Voting with my conscience

I suppose it’s about time I set out my position on the forthcoming UK referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union. I thought about discussing the factual inaccuracy and irrationality of some of the arguments being put forth by proponents of both options on the ballot paper, but I realised that this would be pointless, because this isn’t a referendum that will be decided by reason or rationality. Besides, I came to understand that my own leanings around this issue were ultimately based less on reason than on a certain kind of faith. But more on that later.

First, some background. I was born a decade after the last referendum about the UK’s place in Europe, and for the whole of my life, I took it as read that to be British is to be European. For me, there has never been an “us or them”; there is only us. Partly this is about geography: the British Isles are not in Africa, nor off the coast of North America, but in that part of the world geographers call ‘Europe’. Partly it is a fact of lived experience: from my many friendships and acquaintances with people from other parts of Europe, through the French, Latin, Germanic, and Norse words that form the basis of the English language, to the Italian pasta I pick up from the supermarket, the Swedish music I listen to at home, and the opportunities I’ve had to travel and live alongside fellow Europeans in other parts of the continent.

But most of all it’s about a certain narrative that I’ve been told ever since I was old enough to understand what Europe is, a story I learned from school, from the media, and from those around me. This story is the story of the Twentieth Century, and it goes like this: at the start of the century we were enemies, but gradually, through great trials, much suffering, and many mistakes, we became friends. I’ve never for a moment doubted the truth of this story; perhaps the fact that I only lived through the tail end of it bolsters my certainty.

Imagine, then, my utter horror and incomprehension when confronted by people in the UK and elsewhere in Europe intent on resurrecting the old animosities, the old mistrust, that I thought we had consigned to the annals of history. Naturally, I understand that some who bang the drum the loudest for the old ways are opportunists seeking personal political or financial gain. But there are some who seem to genuinely — inconceivably — believe that things were better when we were enemies with each other, squabbling like seagulls over every scrap of geopolitical and economic power, and that we should seek to return to such a state of affairs. As if they have forgotten what it cost to get to where we are.

As for me, I’m sticking with the story I know — and not just because it’s true. For me, the European Union has never been simply a trade bloc; rather, it stands for openness, tolerance, and mutual support. I want to claim citizenship in a world that holds to these values, because I’m happiest when we are happy, and I’m safest when we are safe. We all face the same challenges — global economic and social inequalities, climate change, terrorism — and they won’t magically disappear if the UK decides to turn its back on its neighbours. We are already far more dependent upon each other than our political structures account for. We’re in this together whether we acknowledge it or not.

Politicians and bureaucrats working on our behalf have not always acted as if we were all on the same team; our union has often been a compromise forced through the fudging together of conflicting national interests rather than a commitment to work for the benefit of all. There will need to be extensive reforms if the European Union is ever to achieve its full potential as a force for kindness and justice. There are people who say that we will never outrun our selfish, short-sighted, bigoted worse selves; that it is safest to dig a moat around our nearest and dearest and pull up the drawbridge. But if it is irrational or naive to think that we can reach beyond our selfishness and fear to embrace the peace and compassion that will make our world a fairer and better place to live, still it is only by living as if we can that we have a hope of doing so.

Here comes the faith bit: we will do so. I know this because there is no “us and them” — there is only us; if that’s not yet true, we will make it true by choosing the path of cooperation and trust. Voting “Remain” on 23 June is just a small step in that direction.