When I was awoken at 3.30 am in the centre of Montpellier a few days ago by raucous shrieks from blind-drunk English fans down in the street below (no doubt bare-chested and draped in Union Jacks or the cross of St George in the manner of other fans spotted earlier that day), I was not only irritated but also a bit ashamed. I felt shame at their antics, which then triggered shame as a Brit at the whole unedifying referendum “debate” I’d been relieved to escape for a week. When even Angela Merkel sees fit to comment on the débâcle, you know something truly awful is going on. And the news of the shocking murder of Jo Cox which seeped through my self-imposed news ban simply left me without words.
Why did those drunken idiots evoke the spectre of Brexit? I suppose I just have to own up to the prejudices I have about both groups: that they’re narrow-minded bigots incapable of listening to reason and inhabiting a delusional world of limited horizons. Ok, so there’ll be some exceptions. But not enough to remove the gnawing pain and frustration and even anger I’m feeling about everything going on right now with the referendum.
I am a European, heart, soul and mind. I recognise that the visceral, emotional response I have in wanting to remain is (on one view) simply the opposite end of the emotional spectrum felt by the Brexiteers. I recognise I am as little likely to be swayed by real economic argument as they, and that Brexiteers are as entitled to feel their opinion, however this may have been informed, as strongly as I am entitled to mine. But whilst I am reluctant to claim some moral higher ground for my beliefs, I can’t help but think (in contrast to the other side) I’m the one being driven by the common shared values of the sort of society I want to live in, however idealistic they may be: a desire for mutual tolerance and respect; a love of diversity; providing a warm welcome to the stranger in our midst; ever-closer integration with people from all over; and profound dislike of rigidity, inflexibility, labels, categories and unchallenged prejudices. Which is why I know not all bare-chested drunk football fans decked in flags are xenophobes and not all Brexiteers are lying bigots.
Nerdy saddo that I was, the highlight of my teenage years was Britain finally, finally joining Europe in 1973. An early attempt at a novel (when I was 12) set in Brittany was inspired by my first exciting trip onto “the Continent” in a car jostling for space with siblings and the massive family tent. I was thrilled to get first day cover stamps celebrating entry into the EEC (a rather nice interlocking jigsaw design with the British Isles an integral piece), and suddenly my world had expanded beyond the narrow confines of 1970s provincial Cheshire. In preparation for my new future, I spent hours trying to tune in on long wave radio to catch snatches of French and German radio channels I could barely hear, never mind understand. I crowned my Europe obsession by studying Law with French, and finally, joyfully, after spending a couple of years in Paris, returned to London to specialise in the practice of EU law.
What else could I ever be but a European?
If someone had told me back then that this nasty “debate” about our place in Europe would be happening now, like this, I simply would not have believed it. The EU may be dysfunctional in areas and may be a bureaucratic nightmare, but to make piecemeal criticism the basis for withdrawal is to miss the bigger picture and wider essential context of European history: Jean Monnet’s vision, and the shared values of what counts: united we stand and divided we fall. However generally or particularly you like to take that concept.
But of course, the “debate” isn’t really about any sensible constructive assessment of our place within Europe. It’s been reduced to playing on that most basic of human fears of the Other, and the evocation of an apocalyptic invasion of Britain by immigrants. Other articles which have been widely shared within my social media “silo” (eg Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen,) have analysed all of this brilliantly: sadly, they won’t be read by anyone in the Brexit camp with half a brain who is genuinely interested in understanding what’s really happening. No, it seems that a worryingly high proportion of the electorate is happy to spout and repeat the insane lies and opinions promulgated by the absurd leadership of the Brexit campaign, and is prepared to vote accordingly.
When this is all over, whichever way it goes, everything bad that happens thereafter will be blamed on the EU by that worryingly high proportion of the population. Even if Brexit wins, the inevitable adverse economic fallout in years to come will undoubtedly be attributed by the xenophobes as the fault of the EU for not agreeing to any sensible exit package. Nationalistic, independent, insular Britain will face the reality of global economic interdependence, and it will be everybody else’s fault but ours. The frenzy of a blame culture will not easily disappear, and will naturally make a good story for a media which is only interested in stories these days.
The thing which has really troubled me in this whole unedifying “debate” is the role the traditional media, particularly the BBC, has played in all of this. The BBC has been bending over backwards to present impartial coverage, where every comment and pronouncement from either side is counterbalanced by the other side’s response. As a consequence, considered, thoughtful, informed comments from people who genuinely understand the issues are reported on the one hand only to be countered by banal nonsensical easy-to-hear sound bite responses: lies, lies, experts, pah! At what point does this cease to be impartial reporting, and move to a complete abdication of journalistic responsibility to report on the truth and properly inform the public?
I’ve had to switch off on too many occasions these last few weeks. Those ludicrous interviews with the popular voice of Britain, where interviewees could be heard repeating many of the lies of the campaign as their reason for wanting to leave are simply too painful to listen to. Such ignorance isn’t their fault: they are bombarded by reckless or wilful (it really doesn’t matter which) misstatements of facts by prominent politicians and others who ought to know better, and then relayed unchallenged by a media obsessed with a bizarre notion of fairness and impartiality. This juxtaposition of informed fact with nonsense, if it results in Brexit, is ultimately doomed to have the worst consequences for those very sectors of society least able to inform themselves.
I feel troubled about all of this in a way which is new to me. I don’t like what has been revealed about various aspects of contemporary society. I don’t want to be in a minority of liberal, outward-looking, inclusive people. I have to vote to Remain because it’s my worldview.