I usually keep this blog for riffing on creativity, storytelling, and all things literary. But unless you’ve been under a rock these past weeks, you know there’s a very important referendum tomorrow.
The people of the UK are being asked to cast a vote to support staying in the European Union (EU) or leaving the EU.
I’ve lived through a few referendums now. The first two were in Quebec (1980 and 1995) when the province of Canada asked its people to vote on independence. The most recent was the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Tomorrow, the UK goes to polls to decide whether it wants to remain in the EU or leave it.
While the situations are all different (Quebec and Scotland were part of sovereign nations, whereas the UK is part of a political Union), the underlying themes are all the same in all four referendums: local control.
I’ve noticed the Leave campaign in all of its manifestations (ads, spokespeople, supporting media outlets such as the Daily Mail) focus on this one word: control.
Nobody likes being told how to live their lives, or govern their state.
The people of Quebec resented Ottawa and its misunderstanding of what makes Quebec special. I know from first hand experience that many Scots loathe London-centric thinking of UK politics and would rather self-govern. And in the UK as a whole, it’s frustrating that many policies and laws are shaped beyond our borders…especially when most of us don’t understand the European parliament process or even know who our MEP is.
And many people in modern Britain feel out of control. I’m lucky enough to travel up and down the country and speak to thousands of people when I go on book tour, and I see the frustration of so many people whose wages have stagnated, who worry about too many people on what is actually a very small land mass (fun fact: the UK is only 15.7% the size of Quebec…but has 8 times as many people!), and who worry about scarcity of housing, jobs, school places, and GP spots.
It’s no wonder people want to feel more in control. I mean, who doesn’t?!
The economy is ever more global and competition for jobs and wages come as far as China, while the benefits the global capitalism have overwhemingly accrued to what we now call “the 1%.”
One of the things that’s great about Great Britain is its fairness doctrine. Brits value fairness, and from queue jumping to job-theiving, resent when others don’t play fair. And frankly, the world has gotten a lot less fair for a lot more people.
The campaigning on both sides has reflected this reality and this frustration.
Unfortunately, it has painted some Brexit supporters as inward thinking, backward looking, or worse (racist, xenophobic), but I don’t think that’s correct at all. It’s a natural response in uncertain times to want to circle the wagons, pull up the drawbridge or do whatever transportation / castle-based metaphor you want to employ. We live in a complex, unpredictable, and increasingly scary world and the instinct hold tight to what we know is a visceral one and needs to be respected. And as I try to tell my six year old: name-calling helps no one.
But Thursday’s referendum isn’t about the benefits or failings of modern capitalism, it’s about whether the country will be better of in or out of the EU.
And I think the UK is stronger, safer, and more prosperous in than out. And my reasons are this…
1. We’re not European, but our fate is tied to Europe. We’re on the doorstep of the continent and whilst I’d never proclaim that Brits are in any way European (we have a fundamental different approaches to life and work ethic), since the time of the Romans and Normans our fate is so closely tied up with the continent that we should be leading debate and discussion from the inside and not absenting ourselves from a union of neighbouring nations. In my opinion, both the UK and the EU have failed to engage with each other. We have shown the EU indifference to disdain, and thus haven’t been taking up a natural leadership role in Brussels. The UK should be leading in Europe, helping to steer policy and strategy, not turning it’s back. We do this in the realm of financial regulation, corralling the continent’s regulators to ensure a stable system following the financial crisis of 2008, but there is so much more we should be doing to influence the direction of the region.
2. Free trade and free movement of goods and people are best for the economy. The EU gives us a “home market” of over 500 million people. A large, competitive home market has long been one the U.S.’s big economic strengths and the UK is only now just enjoying that benefit too. Labour movement enables a dynamic economy across the board, and the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs (http://ukandeu.ac.uk/the-benefits-of-immigration/). That said, a robust economy with low unemployment is meaningless if you’re on the of the people without a job. When British people feel displaced in their own communities, all the macro economic theory in the world won’t make a lick of difference…and the unfortunate reality of free trade means there are winners and losers — and often the losers have to relocate or retrain in order to participate in a dynamic, liberal economy. It’s one of the reason the U.S. has the highest incidence of internal migration in the world…people simply up sticks to take a job elsewhere.
3. There are real global threats that are best tackled with scale & cooperation. Climate change, food security, China’s ascension, the global population on track to hit 10b, and the rise of Islamic extremism are all threats that need coordinated solutions. The EU, for all of it’s flaws, provides a framework for scale and a stronger voice on the global stage. On our own, the UK is actually a small nation in a world now dominated by big countries and trading blocks: the U.S., China, India, Russia, and the EU.
4. The EU is a peacekeeping mechanism. My grandfather served in WWII and for our generation it’s easy to take for granted the post-war peace and prosperity we’ve enjoyed. But the 20th century was marked by two European wars that became global conflicts. The EU, in bringing together disparate nations in a mechanism for discussion and union, has kept Europe for descending into violent conflict. We need to acknowledge and celebrate this…as the Nobel Prize did in 2012: “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.
The EU is far from perfect, but it is good. And let’s not let perfect be the enemy of the good. If you’re voting tomorrow, I’d respectfully urge you to vote ‘Remain.’