It was while watching an infantile and ill-tempered Question Time on BBC One last night that I finally realised how much I detest the current EU debate. In fact, it depresses me. I’ve been waiting for someone – anyone – to offer a positive but realistic vision of the future-UK, in or out. Instead we’ve been treated to the most negative and nonsensical electoral campaign I can remember. It’s appalling – to the point I’m starting to shout at the TV whenever the subject comes up.
My anger started with the Remain camp, which surprised even me. I was expecting the Leave camp to make wild claims, but I became increasingly annoyed by establishment figures lining up – one after the other in a clearly choreographed formation – to tell us we were heading for hell in a handcart if we voted out. I kept my temper when this was simply economic – not least because there could indeed be a short-term economic shock. But when the baloney started – such as the prospect of World War Three, or the need for visas for French holidays, or when we’re told that the chief Brexit cheerleaders are Putin and the head of ISIS – the TV (or radio or newspaper or iPad) began to receive the brunt of my displeasure, oh yes.
Yet the Leave camp’s baloney has also been way above my expectations: telling us we’d have £350 million per week to spend on the NHS, which is clearly claptrap, or that Turkey was about to become a member and deluge the country with up to 75 million migrants. And as for the old lady in their TV slot last night (after Channel 4 News) – ending up at death’s door in an NHS waiting room overwhelmed by immigrants while her post-Brexit alter-ego was met with smiles and attentiveness – I’m sorry, but that’s the sort of advert the BNP used to put out, and it’s frankly unacceptable.
Hence my fear and loathing on the entire subject.
Yet such an exercise in democracy shouldn’t be such a turn off, especially for someone as politically engaged as I. This should be a grown-up debate about what comes down to two competing visions of the UK’s future. Framed correctly, both are positive visions, though both are being drowned out by the negativity – as if we’re deciding between the lesser of two future purgatories rather than the better of two adult views regarding what’s best for Britain.
The positive pro-EU vision (let’s call it the Best of Both Worlds vision) conjures an image of a Europe of concentric rings. At its heart is a political union – the eurozone – with rings further out for the non-eurozone EU states (Britain, Sweden etc), and further out for the Norways and Switzerlands, Turkeys and Icelands that have varying degrees of access and harmonisation, though are not in the Union. It seems sensible to me that Britain – negotiating at every turn – stays beyond the political union but as close as possible to the economic benefits of a single market of 500 million people. If, as claimed, this can be achieved within the EU – keeping our place at the negotiating table and therefore our influence – so much the better.
But then the positive vision of life outside the EU is only a single step beyond this – stating that we should cross the line to the next concentric ring: one outside of the EU altogether but still on strong trading terms with those within. This gives us at least the sense of sovereignty: having to opt in to each agreement rather than – with the Best of Both Worlds vision – negotiating opt outs for the moves we dislike. We would also, we are told, be able to secure trading agreements with other countries, including the US and the Commonwealth. In fact, we could call this the Global Trading Nation vision – in which we have strong trade deals with many countries, including those in the EU, although will inevitably have to comply with the stipulations of each agreement.
As for issues such as security, defence, climate change, terrorism etc – as far as I can see they’d be not one jot of difference between either vision. Not only would we cooperate, we’d be one of the leading countries in such cooperation – in or out. We always are.
What’s more, both visions look achievable to me, with some goodwill and some grown-up thinking. Yet the longer this negative and invective-flecked campaign goes on the more it’s become about who can throw their toys the furthest – creating a self-fulfilling sense of brinkmanship that can only be detrimental to the UK’s long term interests. So sour has the debate become that I worry both positive visions are being lost, which means that – if we vote to leave – it’ll become a highly-contested divorce (with a take-it-or-leave-it solution rammed down our throat), while if we vote to stay we’ll have squandered any negotiating wriggle-room for preventing or opting out of further centralising initiatives.
So please don’t vote Remain because you hate Nigel Farage or Michael Gove or think we’ll be ruined if we leave (we won’t). Vote for Remain because you think we can win the Best of Both Worlds – part of the economic but not political union. I certainly do. But please don’t vote Leave because you hate David Cameron or Nicola Sturgeon or want to stop immigration (it won’t). Vote Leave because your vision is of the UK as a Global Trading Nation, outside the EU while trading equally with it, something I equally think we can – with a fair wind – achieve.
Whatever your vision, however, it may be best to avoid the news between now and the 23rd June.