Our cleaner was called Edith, a name that is rarer now, and the year was 1975. I was 15, and Britain was set to vote whether to remain in or to leave the Common Market. My parents were for Remain. Edith was for Leave – on the ground that she was British and the Common Market meant that Britain was losing its independence. My love was for my parents, but my sympathies were with Edith (on this matter, anyway). It was an insight into a certain idea of being British, of our national character being bound up with self-government, seen almost for the first time – like Keats looking into Chapman’s Homer.
Forty long years have come and gone, and Edith is dead, but in some ways very little has changed. The Common Market has grown into the European Union. It is at once very strong – to the degree that it makes almost two-thirds of our laws – and rather weak, in the sense that it is not, at least yet, a fully federal state: its richer northern European members, such as Germany, are not obliged to transfer to its poorer southern ones, such as Greece, the funds that their common membership of the Euro suggests should be transferred. The consequence is poverty, unemployment, human misery, and the rise of demagogues, in a frightening echo of the 1930s.
But were the EU stronger – if that political, monetary and economic union were in place – we wouldn’t want to be bound by it, anyway. It wouldn’t suit the free-trading, internationalist, country that we are: both European and global. So the decision in this referendum is easy for me. But what is easy is not always simple, and so it proves to be in this case. I have never been able to see “ever-closer union”, as some Eurosceptics do, as a wickedness in itself, or the EU as an evil empire. Nationalism has worked well for us, but not for our neighbours. Until recently, the EU was a net plus for the continent – a democratic home for those who had sweated under fascist colonels and communist dictators.
Furthermore, it is conceivable that the economic and political price for self-government might be too high to pay. And we are being taken on a ghost train tour to persuade us that this is indeed so. George Osborne’s claim that house prices will fall in the event of Brexit is one of the latest spooks employed to frighten us all out of our wits (or at least those of us who own our homes). I can’t find a better response than that of Chris Giles, the economics editor of the emphatically pro-Remain Financial Times. “The best that can be said for these housing claims is that they are educated guesses,” he wrote. “More likely, the numbers are just made up.”
But in any event, Osborne himself, together with David Cameron, have deftly pulled the rug from under their own case. They themselves threatened to leave the EU no fewer than seven times. If Brexit would really be so economically harmful, why were they prepared to carry it out? Nor should we be swayed by Treasury forecasts (not renowned for their accuracy), the IMF (which has not always been a friend of the Chancellor, suggesting in 2013 that he would cause a triple-dip recession), bureaucrats dependent on the Prime Minister’s patronage for their jobs and salaries, or the generation of Conservative politicians that urged us to join the Euro.
The political arguments are harder to compass – necessarily so, since the future contains unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, as well as the known ones. Nicola Sturgeon now has no majority in Scotland, and its people don’t want a second referendum, but it would be a strange Unionist who was not troubled by the possibility of a second independence referendum in the event of a Leave vote. Then there is the knock-on effect on Northern Ireland, in which the nationalist minority is for Remain. Perhaps a Brexit vote would bring the EU to its senses, as Michael Howard believes. Or perhaps it would instead lash it into panic, to Putin’s diplomatic and political advantage.
None the less, against these possibilites must be weighed a certainty – that, if we vote for Remain, we will be drawn deeper into the EU project. We will be locked into a economic block with which the proportion of our trade is falling. We will risk bigger bills, EU taxes and bailouts, since Brussels will view a Remain vote as a green light for integration. We will certainly give up any prospect of control over about half of our immigration. The next stage in EU integration will be drawn from the Five Presidents Report. This looks forward – perfectly rationally in its own terms – to complete political union. We’re hearing a lot about the risks of Leave. We should hear more about the risks of Remain.
These are risks from which Cameron’s recent deal offers us not more but less protection than we had before. For as Peter Lilley has pointed out: “the renegotiation surrendered Britain’s one remaining bargaining lever – our right to give or withhold consent to future EU treaties (and some directives) required to convert the Eurozone into a Political Union. We could have used that leverage to get powers devolved to the UK in return for agreeing to Eurozone integration – and to block measures harmful to us”. The Prime Minister said that he would recommend a Remain vote on the basis of a reformed Europe. But there is no reformed Europe, and our position is now weaker than it was before.
The vote takes place a month today, and I will keep faith with Edith. If Remain wins, I suspect that surprisingly few of those who voted Leave will admit so in the aftermath. But that will not be so six months after such a vote, if it happens, by which time the measures that Brussels is holding back will have been released. Perhaps Britain is a bit like a man in a room. It is growing darker: outside is sunlight, a spring breeze, open country. The man has put on a bit of weight: squeezing through that door is perfectly possible, but would be rather uncomfortable. I doubt that we are up for the effort, but still hope to be pleasantly surprised.