People are approaching the EU referendum with hard-headed rationalism but there's more to it than that
Two things have struck me about the popular public debate on the EU referendum. Firstly, that there is one at all. Already I’ve overheard conversations on trains, in pubs, and at shopping centres between people discussing which way they might vote. For the EU to be the thing that ‘everyone is talking about’ is quite unusual.
Secondly, is the extent to which the (albeit not entirely representative) sample of people I have spoken to are all coming at this issue with a Kantian, hard-headed rationalism.
Friends, family, and complete strangers have echoed a similar refrain: where can I get the information I need to help me decide how to vote? This is in contrast to the normal political decision-making processes that humans go through – basing our preferences on values, emotions, and familiar behaviour.
I think this unusual reaction has two root causes. For one, the EU often seems very distant from people’s lives. We know we are in it and we know that UKIP don’t like it but apart from that most of the impacts of our membership have now become part and parcel of daily life, unnoticed by the majority.
Suddenly being asked to decide whether or not we should continue our membership has therefore thrown up a whole host of questions for people about what that membership actually means.
This effect is being exacerbated by people’s appreciation of the gravity of the decision we are being asked to make on June 23rd. Elections come and go and the choice between the main political parties seems usually to be one of style, not substance.
This referendum, however, is different. We have never been asked to make this decision before and yet the conclusion we reach could have a major impact on our economic, social, and political future. For many, this is a frightening prospect.
And that’s why if anyone has asked me what I think I always give the same answer: go with what your values tell you. To be frank, no politician really knows either way what continued membership or non-membership would mean for Britain or the British people.
We cannot say what leaving the EU would look like because no one has ever done it before. But similarly no politician can pretend that Britain will have complete control over the future of the EU by staying in because the preferences of 27 other nation states also have to be taken into account.
The result is that the referendum debates have largely become a farce. The central figures in this fight all have other interests in the outcome besides the welfare of the British people.
Cameron doesn’t want to be the PM who lost one of the most significant referendums in history. Boris wants Cameron’s job. Osborne does too but he has to appear loyal to Cameron and steady the economic ship right up to June 23rd to keep punters happy with business as usual.
Speaking of business, major companies will continue to issue warnings about what Brexit could do to the UK economy but by that what they really mean is their annual profit margins not the future economic prospects of the majority.
Given the gumpf that is being put forward by the major sides in this debate, the best thing to do is stick to your values and beliefs. That’s why I am voting to remain.
I would always rather be part of the club trying to tackle world problems, not hiding in isolation. I believe in being as open, compassionate, and friendly to our European neighbours as possible, not shutting ourselves away in some false hope that we can retain absolute sovereignty in an interconnected world.
I think that something of the history, culture, and heritage that we share with Europeans in other countries of the EU would be lost if we cut our ties. And, quite frankly, I can’t vote in an election in favour of the position put forward by members of UKIP, even if that leaves me siding with Cameron and Osborne.
We all face a big decision on June 23rd and is gravely sad that this choice is being put to us only to help our Prime Minister satisfy the insatiable desires of his party’s right flank.
But this doesn’t mean we should shy away from the decision. We have an opportunity to use this vote to send a message about the kind of Britain we want to live in. I want that Britain to receive an invitation to the European party, not be left out in the cold.
Matt Hawkins is an activist who works in the charity sectorLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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