What does the EU have to do with hoovering?

On the difficulty of campaigning for something boring but sensible.

Marco Biagi
9 June 2016

"The de-dusting pump", Chronik 1913

Campaigning for the EU is like trying to be a passionate advocate for hoovering. You can recognise its benefits but it is very hard to love. Try as I might but when as an SNP government minister it came to talking up the EU it sounded like I was listening to a recording of someone else speaking. I can accept the case for voting to remain in the EU only on a coldly cerebral level.

The only consideration that quickens the pulse is the prospect of whatever crazed Brexiteer Tory would enter Downing Street following a David Cameron resignation. Even then since I find myself on the side that keeps a loathed Conservative prime minister staying in office, I have to pinch myself. It’s like being trapped in a nightmare brought on by eating bendy bananas before bedtime.

More than anything this EU referendum feels like witnessing a family feud in British conservatism, like in that uneasy period between Christmas and New Year where the turkey has run out and everyone is starting to fall out over the washing up. There is no option to sit it out as thanks to the last election this family are our current duly-elected lords and masters and we the electorate merely the servants in Downton Abbey.

On referendum day like most Scots I will not be bounding into the polling station at a minute past seven with a grin and a faint visage of tiredness, but unlike most Scots this is what I normally do. A proxy is voting on my behalf. And I’ll be on holiday. This is no protest, merely a combination of early booking and one of David Cameron’s many mistakes – his eyebrow-raising scheduling of the vote for late June.

Appropriately enough I’ll be in one of those many non-EU countries whose visa-free travel for UK citizens undermines the Remain argument that such travel to our continental neighbours depends on the EU. Unlike the prime minister however, I don’t expect war to break out between this nation and the UK simply because they are not both in the EU, not least because democracies have spent the last century showing they almost never go to war with each other.

And this is typical. The arguments on both sides of this debate should have more qualifications than the faculty at Harvard.

What carries no qualification is that only staying in the EU guarantees a place around its decision-making table. Both sides in the debate recognise free trade with the continent is worth keeping. The EU’s single market rules give Scottish companies potential to win business and create jobs by exporting their products and services to customers abroad far more easily. Leaving would mean continuing to abide by those rules but no longer taking part in deciding them.

Such influence as the EU as a project has on the sovereign governments comes in two ways. There is the soft power exerted in any community when members are seen alongside their peers and comparisons made, and amplified by the social and professional networks of the EU’s administrative class in Brussels and elsewhere. And there is the quid pro quo that those governments who are less enthusiastic about stronger social protections will nonetheless accept them in exchange for countervailing financial gains such as easier exports and freer movement of citizens.

This is an important effect, and probably the main reason why progressives should vote to Remain. Do we trust the collective wisdom of European governments on work and environmental issues more than we trust the UK Government? Yes, but on these issues I’d trust alien lizards from space more than I trust the UK Government.

But even in both of these areas there are real doubts. Centre-left parties are in crisis at the domestic level across Europe and the long term outlook for the political composition of the Council is not encouraging. The enthusiasm of the EU’s administrative class for some of the wilder provisions of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that threaten public provision and consumer protection give pause.

And both in the UK and in Brussels itself is hard to escape the nagging sense that the EU’s greatest cheerleaders secretly believe that countries are a bad idea and the ideal government would be the kind of bureaucratic rule they imposed on Italy and Greece. This is why the phrase “ever closer union” has rankled so many. We are in the EU to bring through collective action benefits to our respective nations, not to bring an end to those nations.

No wonder then that so many progressives find it hard to campaign for the EU. And if the Remain side prefix every argument with a disclaimer about recognising the EU’s faults it leaves them at a disadvantage compared to the zeal of Leave. Undecided voters will see supporters of Remain who – like I do – have doubts and may have their own doubts reinforced. But it is more honest. In an ideal world politics should be the other way round. Compared to the travel brochure presentation of the official Remain campaign those of us who see and recognise that there are shortcomings to the EU – but nonetheless are voting to stay – surely present a more realistic picture. But just as we’re not in an ideal EU we’re not in an ideal world. And this is just one of the reasons I now worry for the result on June 23rd.

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