Should I stay or should I go? The multiple crises of Europe and Britain

Neither campaign offers a compelling option.

Gerry Hassan
22 April 2016

Image, NASA


I am a European. I believe in Europe as an idea. And for all of my life I have felt an affinity and connection with the notion of greater European integration.

Now I am not so sure. When I was a child my parents voted in the 1975 referendum against the then EEC. I wasn’t convinced of their argument. The BBC were showing then John Terraine’s ‘The Mighty Continent’ – a history of Europe in the 20th century – narrated by Peter Ustinov.

This hooked me. It told Britain’s island story as part of the continent: of two world wars, the depression and post-war boom, art and literature, and introduced me to the tragedies of the Hungarian uprising and Prague spring, both of which were snuffed out by Soviet tanks.

Britain was the sick man of Europe in the sixties and seventies. The German and, even to a lesser extent, French and Italian economies were both revered and feared – with faster economic growth, greater prosperity, and better labour relations between workers and management than the UK.

The UK joined the EEC in 1973 and decisively voted to stay in two years later in the 1975 referendum. Fear was the main driver in all of this – fear of being left behind and overtaken, of British ungovernability, of having to face our own demons. Today so much has changed – including the demons.

Ever since I have been pro-Europe, seeing myself as European and thinking most of the time the best of the European project. I am a natural stay-in voter in the coming referendum, but I find myself in the strange, perplexing position that I currently don’t know which way I will vote.

The stay in arguments are stability, certainty, continuity, reducing risk and the judgement that it is best to reform the EU from within. The leave case is that the EU is in a mess, becoming increasingly anti-democratic and burdensome, and that the UK – as we are endlessly being told as ‘the fifth richest economy in the world’ – can clearly make it on its own and govern itself.

There is a Project Fear argument about the perils of leaving – namely, do we want to be left with our demons again, confronting our own ‘little Englanderism’, and that the UK leaving would be a devastating, if not quite fatal blow, to EU prestige. 

Even more than the indyref I don’t feel the binary choice offered by the two arguments really represents my feelings or reality. The two actually agree on much. They believe that Europe isn’t working, while neither love the European Union, and are united in Euroscepticism, only disagreeing in the extent. Both think Britain is ‘special’ – and that it is semi-detached from the continent, and that our relationship with the EU should only be transactional. The pro-European case is mostly left unheard.

Referendums across the world usually confirm existing consensuses. Most independence referendums that take place are won massively and decisively by the forces of self-government and statehood. Examples of these are numerous and cover every possible type of nation – from Norway in 1905 to Iceland in 1944 and South Sudan in 2011. That of course wasn’t the experience of Scotland in 2014. But it is in a way with the European referendum for, whatever the result, the terms of this debate are confirming that the UK (or to be accurate, England) is a Eurosceptic country.

This debate poses a number of thorny issues for the Conservative and Labour parties. Cameron chose to have this referendum – deciding in January 2013 that the best way to ‘stop banging on about Europe’ was to continue banging on about Europe. He has ended up a prisoner of the logic of his own strategy. He has fed the beast of Tory Euroscepticism in offering them a Euro vote, and may end up being devoured by the creature he has given succour to. But the problem is even more acute than that.

Cameron knows that to win this vote he has to advocate and make the case for Europe, but in so doing will undermine his own authority as Tory leader and prime minister. He is weakening his own legitimacy and bringing nearer the day he has to resign. Wilson in 1975 led a Eurosceptic party, while advocating a vote to remain, and at the same time managed to position himself above his party, and in so doing was able to unite it afterwards and then choose the timing of his leaving office in March 1976 – taking party and country by surprise.

Of course if Cameron loses the Euro vote he will be gone shortly – resigning either in days or weeks. A relevant fact brought up by the ‘Spectator’s’ James Forsyth is that no Conservative leader has chosen the time of their departure since Stanley Baldwin in 1937. The Tories don’t like failing leaders (Heath, IDS), but also don’t tolerate leaders who have authority draining away from them (Eden, Macmillan, Thatcher, and now Cameron). That doesn’t auger well for Cameron whatever the vote.

Labour is meant to be united on Europe, but that belies the fact that the party isn’t really united on anything. The party may be formally pro-European, but Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell despite committing to staying in, have with their history of Euroscepticism, shown no real enthusiasm for making the case. Corbyn went through the motions last week, but people who want or expect more forget that even in a binary choice referendum, one viable option is to not actively embrace either camp, but to stand aside. The SNP and Lib Dems have uncomplicated pro-EU stances (Jim Sillars apart in the former), but don’t seem to have anything distinctive to say about reform or democratising the union.

There is the Scottish question in this and what happens to the United Kingdom as an entity. The referendum could aid the case and lay the ground for Scottish independence – if the UK votes to come out and Scotland (as all polls indicate) decisively votes to stay in.

Many other permutations are possible. One is that a Scottish stay-in vote of 58% could just override the narrowest of English votes for exit. But another more likely scenario – and which hasn’t had much consideration in Scotland – is that a narrow UK vote to stay or leave could, just could, offer a last chance for the UK.

A narrow stay vote would allow a small window for the British state to reconsider the nature of power at Westminster, the political system, and relations with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. There is even the prospect that a slender exit vote – bringing as it would power repatriated to Westminster from Europe – and with it the possibility of the further devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could give the opportunity for a reconfigurated union state UK. However, considering the shock value to the British political establishment of an exit vote, and the likelihood that all three devolved nations would vote to stay in, the chances of reform in this case building a formidable head of steam are slight to say the least.

A close vote in the European referendum has always been the most plausible outcome. This is just like the indyref, and just like the indyref there is the prospect that such a narrow vote does not ultimately decide anything, and only postpones any final conclusion to a later date.

Take the two opposite scenarios. A narrow vote to remain isn’t the end of the debate, because the EU has huge dilemmas to face, particularly around the future of the Euro zone and further integration, which will leave the EU and Euro zone nearly synonymous (the UK and Denmark aside). A slim vote to exit similarly could produce a whole host of different outcomes, with the UK not necessarily immediately invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin the process of withdrawal. Instead, some kind of compromise and new deal might be arrived at, with the option of a second referendum to endorse any agreement. The difference between these two British futures (in a manner just like Scotland’s choices in the indyref) isn’t that wide or substantial: both are about a UK standing apart from the main body of the EU. But neither official camp wants to admit to this basic truth.

This of course isn’t how things are meant to be in the world according to the Westminster political class. But they no longer control events. The 1975 referendum was the first UK wide such vote (following the 1973 Northern Ireland ‘border’ plebiscite), and as such was meant to be a one-off. Referendums were foreign like, alien affairs, held by dodgy regimes and dictatorships such as Hitler and Mussolini. They were ‘unBritish’ in the world of parliamentary sovereignty. But now we no longer live in such a world despite all the protestations from our politicians. This is obviously an age of popular sovereignty, one act of which is the referendum. Harold Wilson after the 1975 contest, reassured a Tory backbencher that this had all been an isolated occasion, setting no precedent and was the end of this debate. How wrong did that prove?

In a vote between flawed versions of Britain and Europe, I really don’t know what way I will decide to vote. All of my instinct and inclination tells me that I should be voting for Europe, for the UK and Scotland to be part of the European Union, but current realities in Europe and the EU prevent me from believing in this. 

We can be certain that fear will be a big part of the next two months until June 23rd. There will be two competing Project Fears: one of the stay in and one of the leave campaign. Many will bemoan this and note the absence of a positive case for Europe on one side and a vision of the kind of Britain that would sit outside the EU on the other.

However, fear has always been part and parcel of politics and political debate, and is a legitimate tool and weapon. In 1975 the UK and, in particular, its elites were driven by fear of the UK being left behind by its European neighbours and a crisis of confidence in the belief that the UK could face up to and overcome its problems. Today, the UK fear is of the scale of change we have to come to terms with in Europe and the world, and which path is the one of least resistance and softest change. In 1975 that pointed to the continuation of the status quo; the same is true today, even if the real prospect of maintaining any status quo is more an allure than real.

The British political classes were not straightforward with the public in 1973-75 pretending that we were joining what was only an economic union and Common Market, and one with no political or democratic consequences. Now they are being equally selective about the direction and challenges Europe faces and the different futures the UK faces. Some fundamental hard truths about such issues would be welcome in the next two months, and help many voters, myself included, weigh up how to vote.

Democracy and democratisation have always been problem terms when it comes to both the UK and Europe, and while for many of us in Scotland in the indyref, it seemed too late to imagine some tidy, federal solution for the UK, so the same is true for the European project. The main argument in both campaigns has been about how to do democracy, reform, holding economic and social power to account, and the role of the nation state. Is it still possible to believe in a grand project at the European level, and for it to be one not of the elites, but the people? Increasingly I have my doubts.

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