If one thing is certain about the forthcoming EU referendum, it is that we should doubt much of what we hear from campaigners from both sides. In pressing an argument, there is a tendency to overstate possibilities as facts and to leave unsaid the crucial qualifiers from promising assertions. For example, listening to an interview on Radio 4 this morning with Theresa Villiers (leave) and Nick Clegg (remain), I wouldn’t disagree with Mrs Villier’s statement that, if Britain leaves, it will definitely have a trade deal with the EU. It is conceivable, albeit barely, that this won’t happen at all and possible that it will take a while to be hammered out. What she didn’t concede was that this will almost certainly be a less favourable arrangement than we enjoy at the moment; the European mainland has more capacity to absorb losses than Britain so, even if EU ministers rise above feeling slighted by reject, Europe will be in a stronger bargaining position.
While I listened to the interview, the key thought that crystallised in my mind was not about economics but what I think is the foundational mistake of the leave campaign: that EU is an undemocratic organisation and leaving it will make us, the British people, freshly empowered to steer our own course. In fact, given that politics is their profession and that a disproportionate number of politicians studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, which should make them well-informed thinkers, I would go so far as to call it the fundamental lie of the leavers.
If the British people choose to spurn their place at the European table, I don’t think this will magically change us from being governed by imposition to a magical world of self-determination. We will still be governed by politicians, many of them following the trend towards populism; ie. power hungry and willing to say or even do whatever they think will win them votes at whatever is the forthcoming contest. We will still have the majority of our political and civil machinery run by unelected officials; our civil service and council staff – indeed, their long-term continuity is a boon to the functioning of the country. Worse still, I’m sure there will all sorts of other trade agreements tying us further into nations like the US, China and India; massive economies, each one of which will place certain expectations and restrictions on us that won’t have much to do with welfare and liberty for British subjects and citizens.
There are many things we can’t be sure about from the referendum. I’m not even sure that the new bonds we would take on would make life much worse in the UK. However, I am adamant that it is a falsehood to suggest that leaving Europe makes us more democratic and I will definitely be voting to continue in close co-operation with our continental neighbours with whom we are so intertwined through ancestry, history and common interest.