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Five things I’ve learnt during the referendum campaign

I have run out of patience with pro-Europeans complaining that the ‘in’ campaign doesn’t ‘make the visionary case for Europe’. I am someone who would indeed respond to...


1)      Project fear is really Project Common Sense.  And it will probably work.

I have run out of patience with pro-Europeans complaining that the ‘in’ campaign doesn’t ‘make the visionary case for Europe’. I am someone who would indeed respond to passionately pro-European messages. But I am also one of the vanishingly tiny number of people who think about politics more often than they think about sex. Most people I know are utterly uninterested in the grand European project. They want to do the right thing by their country – by its economy and security – and are anxious to understand how their decision will affect their family and neighbours. I defy someone to tell me that they are wrong, or that a political campaign that speaks to their concerns is wrong-headed.

2)      None of us know how to cope with globalisation.

There is a group of people whose disdain for project Common Sense really matters – but they are not the progressive left. We, after all, will get over it. We will hold our post-referendum BBQs regardless – huddling under our blue flags, drinking Negronis and listening to euro-pop. The people we need to worry about are the millions who are so pissed off that they are willing to chuck a Brexit-powered firework into the middle of our economy.  These people are sick of the brutality of the global marketplace and the power-grabs of the centralised state, and they are very angry. Granted, it has become more and more clear that leaving the EU won’t help them, and is very likely to make matters worse – but nor will defending the status quo once (and if) we’ve decided to stay. All of us need to see the referendum for what it is – a massive kick up the bum. Once it’s over we can begin the daunting task of prizing power away from Westminster, rebuilding civic life and rebooting industry. So let’s not get too comfortable.

3)     Why I care about Europe.

It’s taken me ages, but I think I’ve figured out why this referendum matters so much. It’s not regulation, or the single market. It’s not cheese or kettles, or even immigration. What’s at stake is something quite different – something which is the founding principle of the European Union. It’s our commitment to economic solidarity as a means of maintaining peace. Jobs, food, education, a hope of a better life – these insulate us against destructive forms of populism, which would otherwise drag us towards extremism and war.  Understanding this helps to explain why the EU’s divisive response to the euro crisis struck such a blow to its credibility; but it also shows why we must keep going and get it right – for example, by offering a more mature and generous answer to the struggles of Greece. Centrists across the continent fear that a Brexit could unleash further spasms of isolationism, tearing at the roots of the union. Personally, I can only see decline and conflict following on the heels of such a break-up, and for this reason I am convinced that the vote on the 23rd will be the most serious of my life.

4)      Supporting the Remain campaign is a bit like Dad’s Army.

Serious yes – and yet sometimes the whole business also feels like an episode of Dad’s Army. Because for all the professionalism of Stronger In, the raggle-taggle gang of self-organising groups around it – gardeners and chefs and firemen and dustmen for In – are both gloriously committed and gloriously silly. I should know, because I do something silly for Europe every day. I agonise over whether rebutting a story about toasters in the Daily Mail could save us from a continental war – much like Corporal Jones agonising over leaving a light on in a toilet during the black-out. I have ideas in the middle of the night that I feel I must email to David Cameron or Will Straw. I maunder on and on about polling and betting and getting the vote out until even the dog slopes off in despair. I do the things, in fact, that we all do when we care about something very much and don’t feel very important or very well-qualified to make it any better. The referendum has turned me into a hopeless amateur, a bumbling enthusiast.  I think that’s a good thing.

5)      Decent, tolerant politics is alive in Britain.

It’s a good thing, because amongst all the bumbling, I have found something decent and earthy amongst my fellow amateurs – something admirable about British politics that has been struggling to express itself for a while. It is a spirit that crosses party lines and is pragmatic. It reflects our age-old instinct to shape the world as we find it, rather than to remould it in our own image, or to charge off in pursuit of utopias. And so whilst it’s true that a bunch of centrists defending a rather tatty and worn-out European Union was never going to be a spectacle of great beauty, it is one to be treasured. In a world where evidence seems cheap and intolerance is the fashion, I am drawn more than ever to this sweet reasonableness, to this oh so small ‘c’ conservatism. Well done everybody.  Keep making the tea and handing out the leaflets. After all, that poor sod you corner outside Tesco’s tomorrow might just be the one that keeps us in Europe – and in doing so, makes our imperfect world that little bit safer.

This piece originally appeared on Ruth Davis’ blog Nature and the common good. 

Image: Amélien Bayle


Ruth Davis

Ruth Davis is a writer and campaigner on nature and the common good. She is also the deputy director of global programmes at RSPB. She was previously a political adviser to Greenpeace UK.


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