I should start with a confession. I haven’t pored over coverage of the European Referendum for months. If anything I’ve avoided it. It’s not that I have no interest in the outcome. Quite the reverse. But I’ve no real interest in the debate. Because for the most part, it’s ranged from tedious to downright offensive. And in any case, I don’t want to be persuaded. I’m going to vote Remain and I can’t conceive of anything that would compel me to do otherwise.
Of course, European institutions need reforming. But my goodness we live in a country where our national parliament has worked harder to preserve black tights than to ensure that democratically elected representatives have somewhere to sit. So if it’s reform we’re really bothered about perhaps we should start at home.
But I have read the occasional comment piece and two in particular stand out. Both were (brilliantly) written by the Conservative peer, Danny Finkelstein. I’ve have never voted Conservative and never will. But I believe passionately in non-partisan, pluralist politics. I want politicians to disagree about policy, not argue endlessly about delivery, though of course that matters.
If it’s all you have to argue about, though, you should probably be reflecting on whether you have anything useful to say to the electorate. Nevertheless, I also want politicians to ensure that when they do agree about policy, they say so without fear or favour. This referendum is one such moment. A moment of such monumental significance that I can’t recall feeling as nervous about the outcome of a poll ever before. So I'm with Danny.
Danny’s first argument started with a question; 'Are you sure you want the facts about Europe?' The question was a response to a constant refrain, 'can’t they just tell us the facts?' Unfortunately, though Danny had bad news for those asking that question. He wasn’t going to answer it. ‘No one is’, he said. ‘Ever. You are on your own.’ He went on to explain why in crystal clear terms. At the end of the day, he said, ‘there is no unbiased authority that can tell us what will happen.’
He concluded thus. ‘You’ll just have to do your best based on a bit of common sense, your natural balance between adventurousness and caution, your decision about how much you respect the judgment of the people on either side and your view about Britain’s place in the world.’
Danny’s words were music to my ears. The reason why the campaigns had worked like an anaesthetic for me was that they were all too often based on a deception that such facts were available, a pandering to the refrain rather than a squaring up to it. A giving in to the electorate rather than giving them a vision which is absolutely biased. Because competing visions should be.
He was asking the electorate to do something pretty obvious. To take responsibility. To make up our own minds on whatever basis made the most sense to us. Halleluiah. Someone was suggesting that we should be treated like adults. If we really are a thriving democracy, then surely it should be one we participate in not as fodder (for either politicians or the media) but as free agents.
Danny’s second argument was about the last part of his conclusion, Britain’s place in the world. He argued with great eloquence and not a little passion that ‘Europe’s battle scars should bind us together.’ Drawing on his own fascinating and moving family history, he argued that the safety and the fragile peace which we have all benefitted from so much over the last 60 years are best served by remaining, not leaving. To do otherwise for him would be ‘a betrayal of his ancestors.’
And it is this argument which has always seemed the most important to me by far. It’s the one which has gripped me viscerally since the weekend that David Cameron named the date. In fact, that weekend, a flood of memories and emotions came over me which went right back to the end of the second world war just 16 years before I was born.
I can’t draw upon a family history so embedded in the trauma of that war as Danny’s. But that weekend the memories I drew on remind me of the proximity of the war to my life. One of the earliest memories I still cling too is being taken by my late mother to watch Winston Churchill’s funeral. I was just three and couldn’t see a thing as I clutched her hand in the throng. But a kind policeman lifted me up onto his shoulders so that I could watch the procession go past. My mother, of course, had lived through the war as a child and like so many of her generation it shaped her outlook on the life that followed.
My second memory was of my father. On holiday in north Wales one summer in the mid-1970s, I befriended a boy around my age on the beach. Unusually though he was German. His name was Fabian and we were to be pals for the next couple of summers. I spoke hardly any German and he only a little English, but somehow we muddled about quite blissfully in a small sailing boat out in the cold blue waters of the Irish Sea. There was just one thing I should bear in mind though my father said. I mustn’t mention the war, particularly in front of his father. Fittingly, the first summer of our friendship was in 1974, the year of the last referendum.
Then I remembered 1981 when, the summer before my final year at university, I went abroad for the first time. It was only as far as the south of France. But it was incredibly exciting. As my first boyfriend and I boarded a train on a hot, sticky night in Paris, we were taking a journey into the unknown. But it was an adventure within the confines of our European home. I've strayed further since but I still love the richness and diversity that Europe has to offer.
The final memory which came over me that weekend was my first trip to Berlin in December 1989. It was just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it had by far the most profound effect on me of any trip I’ve ever made. I was actually a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the time (it seems like a lifetime ago), having taken a few years sabbatical from the Labour Party which I’d joined as a student.
And although my approach to activism was as something of a tanky, my instincts were thoroughly Euro-Communist. So as well as being captivated by the weight of history in Berlin, I was mesmerised by the significance of the fall of a wall which had been built the year I was born. The Cold War was thawing and boundaries of my European home were about to be fundamentally redrawn for the first time since the war. In the succeeding years, I have driven from Budapest to Barcelona with impunity and how wonderful that's been.
I was a baby boomer rather than a war baby. But the war and its consequences have always been etched deep in my psyche. And that weekend the thought that overwhelmed me was that the safety of the European home I’d grown up in was at stake. I couldn’t prove it. There were some objective facts to drawn on but the counterfactual was, by its very nature, unknown.
However, all my instincts told me that a future based on cooperation, on the ties which had safely bound us, must be the right thing to do. Right for my parents’ generation, who had secured it for us, and our children’s who would stand to lose so hugely if the peace were to be shattered. In the weeks that have ensued since the date was announced not a single argument has even grazed the edge of that thought.
It is surely of no surprise to any of us that aside from being a referendum whose campaigns have been prisoners of the Conservative party, in the end, the most dominant issue has been immigration. At times, it feels as if the binary question which will appear on our ballot papers will be about that rather than membership of the institution of the European Union. And yet the tragedy is that far from being a threat, free movement of people should be part of the binding we so desperately need to nurture for our future security in the world.
I’m deeply aware that my perspective on that issue is at odds with that of many people who feel drawn to Brexit in part because I live within a different and more privileged economic sphere. My sadness at their perspective isn’t a sympathetic one (I fundamentally disagree, so how could it be?) But I have a degree of empathy, if only because those I ultimately hold responsible for the spread of anti-immigrant feeling are those who should know better. Whatever the truth of the disconnect revealed on the journalist John Harris’ travels (one of the most interesting commentators of the last few weeks on what people are actually thinking) it is surely the Project Fear of the Brexiters which is most dishonourable.
So as referendum day approaches I am where I have been throughout out the campaign, in the clasp of impassioned inertia. I just want to vote. I’m sorry that I’ve done nothing for the Remainers. But honestly, I’d have been no use. I can see so little sense in leaving that I would be hopeless at engaging with anyone who didn’t share my point of view. Except to ask people to heed Danny’s words. For me this has never been about the economy stupid (though of course that matters), it’s been about the war stupid. Or rather the peace.