Thursday, June 23, 2016

The EU Referendum, Hope & Despair

When they announced that there was finally going to be a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, I thought, "Well, that's it then. We're out."

The European Union is a truly excellent idea, imperfectly - and sometimes badly - put into practice. I felt sure we would vote to leave because it has long provided a political scapegoat for domestic politicians of all stripes - it is rather like an absent wife, who a husband might moan about and use as an excuse for his own inaction and inadequacy. All his mates think he would be so much better off without her, but then one day they actually meet her and wonder how such a woman puts up with a twat like that. Not that she's an angel, mind you. But he is a complete twat.

Whatever happens, the EU will still exist tomorrow and honestly, that is a wonderful thing. My parents have got into their sixties without seeing any outright conflict between the countries of Western Europe - possibly the first generation to do so since people started organising themselves into approximate nations. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, but a further conflict between us and one of our close European neighbours has been and still is completely inconceivable, because of an idea borne out of discussions that started at the end of a war which killed around 3% of the world's population. This is an incredible achievement.

But of course the EU is a collection of countries with different political cultures and mostly muddles through, sometimes failing to act on urgent matters, sometimes acting badly. Fairness is an extremely messy question when you're talking about such a diverse group of countries with equally diverse needs and resources. The EU is one of the best political ideas that anyone ever had, but you know, it's not brilliant. It is merely better that we should be part of the effort.

The European Convention of Human Rights has been by far the most successful application of the tenets first written down in the Univeral Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In principle - although again, far less often in practice - people in the EU have these rights. Our governments can't kill us unless we pose an immediate threat to others. Our governments can't torture us or imprison us indefinitely without trial. They can't interfere with our family life, our religious practices or our private lives in general. I can characterise the government of my country as a twat - I can say pretty much whatever rude things I like about them without fear of interference.

This is amazing. We think it's normal, but it's not normal. It is justice, it is right, but most people in the world do not have nearly this degree of freedom. And it is freedom. Human Rights are often framed as protections - which they are - and of course, most people feel comfortable and comfortable people don't feel they need any protection. But the reason we feel so comfortable is because we are free! And those of us who care most about Human Rights are usually those who are less comfortable or who know that, elsewhere or not so long ago, our lives would be dramatically blighted by governments who would wish to control, silence or eliminate people like us.

And of course, in reality, Human Rights are still abused in Europe, including the UK. There are outright violations like police brutality and abuse, and there are still actual laws on our books which fall short of those sacred tenets. 

And this is relatively young legislation, so there have been some fabulous newspaper headlines about ridiculous cases being brought under Human Rights legislation, with no follow up article when such a case is thrown out of court. But after a bloody long battle, our Human Rights Act remains the most fantastic delicious and brilliant piece of legislation ever enacted in our country.

Whatever happens tomorrow, this is still the case. The EU remains intact, whether we're in it or not and you and I and the rest of the planet will still be better off for that fact. The EU gave us Human Rights and we'll still have them tomorrow. We'll always have to fight our government for them - this one has threatened to scrap ours - because people in power always want more power. The EU has also given us a (metric) tonne of equality and workers rights legislation. It has made us a safer, healthier, freer and more just country. That can't be undone overnight.

Like I said, when they announced the referendum, I thought it would be straight-forward. I have been both gratified and disappointed at how wrong I was. Gratified because an awful lot of people - far more than I imagined - feel as I do or have come round to my way of thinking. Disappointed because the argument has become so ugly. I had imagined any argument would have been about bureaucracy, about future expansion of the EU's powers and about money - how much money goes into the EU and how much comes out. I'm appalled at the racism and hatred I have seen in the last few months. Appalled and frightened.  

Whatever happens, our country needs to do a lot of healing from all this.

We all need to be careful about our bubbles. I've seen a lot of racism (often with a sizeable pinch of homophobia, disablism and misogyny mixed in) because I've seen it on Twitter and because it has been highlighted by anti-racist friends and allies. And I won't say "but clearly, 50% of the country aren't racist" because we live in a racist society and such a statement would wrongly exonerate the other 50% as well. However, many Leave voters will simply not have witnessed this behaviour from their fellow voters. Some will only have seen the debate as reported in a particular newspaper, in the local campaign literature or as portrayed by friends, family and colleagues. Some will not have seen much of the debate at all, but will be voting according to their own values or priorities which have absolutely nothing to do with being scared of or feeling superior to people from other countries and cultures.

So if we vote to Leave, we ought not to despair of our fellow countrymen, women and others. We're in a mess - as I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, there was greater and greater acknowledgement that racism was a problem which decent people tried to combat in themselves and others. In recent years, increasing Islamophobia has twisted that trajectory and in the last few months, I feel that public discourse has taken a firm step backwards. However, whatever happens now, we need to start sorting this out and that won't work too well if we start from the perspective that half of everyone around us is a raging Nazi.

Some people are afraid we're about to swing even further to the right but I think that's the one good thing about this referendum; it answers a question which has been used to stir up anger for the last few decades. That momentum is about to drop away. If we vote Leave, the economy is about to take a dip - even if things work out well long term, this is pretty much inevitable. If we vote Leave, our Prime Minister may resign and there may even be a general election in a few months, but the EU will no long be a factor in that election - why vote for someone offering independence and almost nothing else when that's already been achieved?

That's not to say this whole debacle has not been immensely damaging. It has been by far the most divisive set of political events in my lifetime. It has brought out the very worst in some of us, including some very powerful people who hold significant influence over our lives. The devil is now a regular feature on our TV screens, even though he doesn't yet control their content. 

We will need to deal with all this, whatever. But the EU will still exist, we will still have Human Rights and it would be a great mistake to fall into despair at any outcome of this referendum, given how much work now needs to be done.