Barely a week into the never-ending crash that is the official EU referendum campaign, and my will to live is being slowly, inexorably squeezed out of me, like a small, defenceless rodent being gradually crushed by a hungry boa constrictor.
As you might expect, the “big guns” are starting to make their pitches now. And that includes this morning’s comic turn, the chin-free, charm-vacuum that is Michael Gove.
As ever, the tone of the “debate”, with the help of an ever complaisant media, has turned to the twin horrors of “Project Fear Scaremongering” (translation: I don’t agree with this, but don’t have a response so I’ll just accuse you of scaremongering because I can) and the peevish wailing about so-called bottom line: economically, what has Europe Ever Done For Us? Fine, if that’s all you want to talk about, because (to use the old phrase), you know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I find myself in a different position. I find me asking myself more and more: what is the point of Europe, and what am I in relation to it?
So, let’s take a step back. The thing I most notice is the parade of people who are embracing an EU exit most fervently. This list includes Boris Johnson (though we know that’s more about the mop-headed ambition engine’s personal agenda than any particular deep-seated conviction); Michael Gove; Iain Duncan Smith; George Galloway; John Redwood; Chris Grayling. In other words: a procession of uniquely charmless barrel-scrapings. In all fairness, the choice open to anyone looking at the Remain side isn’t any more edifying, including as it does, our dear leader and his chancellor. Galloway aside, the connecting theme amongst the secessionists seems to be a deep-linked connection into neoliberal economics. Anything resembling “social democracy” or worse yet “socialism” is seen as the most pernicious of evils, to be fought off with the political equivalent of a bell, book and candle. So people like Redwood and Gove, who several years ago were enthusiastically talking about junking the NHS and moving to a private health insurance system make me deeply suspicious in their enthusiasm for a Britain outside of the apparatus of EU social structures. My immediate feeling is that perhaps their antipathy is not towards Europe, but towards any opposition to the balls-to-the-poor economics of asset-stripping that seems to pervade that stream of thinking.
But this also raises questions in my head about wider social organisation. I look at the mostly neoliberal values of those who are so keen on exit, and I see the eminence grise of an essentially Darwinian social model, operating for the benefit of only a very few. The poorest, the most vulnerable, even most of those in the supposed middle are left behind. This is an essentially American model, with the extra patina of is a special (Anglophone) bond that binds us. All of the moves that a so-called Brexit (and I hate that word) are pushing us towards are predicated on those values. The neoliberal mentality seems to eschew all of that, and want s to leave so much to the predations of the free market (the one that worked so well in the run-up to 2008, and afterwards)
But they are not the values I stand for.
Europe as a project does stand for something. And I see myself as a European for exactly those reasons. Yes, the EU is bureaucratic morass, but it is still built on the idea of collaboration, and a sense that to steal a phrase, “we are all in it together”. Social health care is just one of those ideas, or co-ordinating industrial and employment policy, or agriculture, or transport, or research and academic activity. The social values of a European Union are values I can buy into: the rule of law; protection of the weak; shared values of human decency; individual responsibility; freedom of speech, movement and expression; rationalism and the values of enlightenment that have bound us together as a continent over the last centuries. I believe in the Europe of Voltaire, Mill and Kant.
At a time when the world is even more uncertain and perilous than it has been for many years, the idea that we should be backing away from the very people with whom we share those common values and aims is both terrifying and perplexing to me. It strikes me that many of those who seek to do it are intent on generating this schism for what are essentially cheap political reasons (yes, I am definitely looking at you, Johnson). Europe, in its current form, was assembled by those who had gone through the horrors of the most disgusting war in human history, and had no desire to repeat those horrors again. Too many now have forgotten those aims, and are seeking to tear down those foundations without having even the slightest clue about how they will replace what we will lose when they do. Or perhaps they do know, and they just dare not share it publicly with those of us who have most to lose from dismantling this enterprise.
So when I vote, I won’t be making a choice based on the flat tyranny of the “economic numbers”, because I think that there will be some short-term financial uplift. My choice will be made on the basis that I am a European, and both emotionally and philosophically, I believe Europe is where we should be, and at its heart at that.