THE UK would be a spiritually poorer place if the ‘Out’ campaigners get their way, writes Allan Massie
The battle-lines for the EU referendum campaign are being drawn up, even though it will be months before David Cameron’s negotiations concerning EU reform, or treaty change, have concluded. Actually it seems quite likely that the outcome of these negotiations will have little effect. Those in favour of remaining in the EU will pronounce them a success; those who want to leave it will say that whatever the Prime Minister claims to have achieved is quite inadequate. Only some, perhaps only a few, of the “don’t knows” may be influenced, even if they may not read the small print.
We in Scotland now have experience of this sort of referendum. We know that those advocating change are on the front foot. They are likely to be more passionate. Conversely it is hard to get worked up in defence of the status quo. Those who want “Out” can point to a Promised Land and a golden future. The “Ins” find it hard to say anything inspiring. Saying that the status quo isn’t actually that bad is not much of a rallying call, even if it happens to be true. One side offers hope; the other, remarking on the dangers and uncertainties of change, is inevitably accused of “scare-mongering”.
The Electoral Commission has learned something from the Scottish experience. It has learned that the question put to the electorate should be framed in neutral language. Here the SNP got their way on the question: we were asked if Scotland should be independent – yes or no? Unionists saying “no” couldn’t escape the accusation of being negative. Asking us whether we want to leave the European Union or remain in it should allow both sides to make a positive case.
It is essential that the “Remain” camp does this. It is a fair criticism of the “Better Together” campaign last year that they were defensive about the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place in it. In drawing attention to the weaknesses of the SNP case, they were accused of “talking Scotland down”. If the pro-EU team dwell on the dangers of leaving and going it alone, they will invite the same accusation, and with more reason.
In this context it’s unfortunate that when Lord Rose – former boss of M&S, now nominated leader of the Remain camp – launched the pro-EU campaign, he emphasised the financial rewards of our membership and suggested we would be poorer if we gave it up. This may be true, just as Better Together’s warning that we would be poorer if we opted for independence may have been true. But those who want Out will say he is scaremongering and talking Britain down. They’ll be right to do so. Of course the UK could go it alone.
The real question is not “could we?” but “should we?”. It’s not about money. For all the complaints about the costs of membership, the EU budget for all the member states is actually small, not much more than twice the level of all public expenditure in Scotland. But if the Remain team spend much of their energy arguing about costs, they may well lose, and indeed deserve to do so.
If we choose to leave the EU we will be walking away from the most remarkable political experiment of modern time, a response to the terrible wars of the 20th century. The prime cause of these wars was the rivalries between nation-states. After 1945 Winston Churchill, in a speech in Zurich, urged the creation of a United States of Europe. Though he didn’t commit Britain to such a project, his words bore fruit. The project for some form of European Union was set in motion. At its heart was the conviction that co-operation between nations was preferable to confrontation, that common ground could be found in discussion, and that some kind of institutional framework was needed. That was established by the Treaty of Rome, to which Britain – sadly in my opinion – was not a signatory. It would be almost 20 years before we joined what was then the European Economic Community.
The success of what became the EU has been remarkable. Member states may argue about details. They have inevitably different views about many matters. But the Union has held together. Western Europe has enjoyed the longest period of uninterrupted peace in its history, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries of eastern Europe have become member states of the EU. The principle that differing national interests can be reconciled in discussion around the table has been maintained. This is unprecedented, and we have all benefited. We have enjoyed a golden period of peace and prosperity. The EU has been a noble experiment and one that has served us all well. Of course there is much to irritate, much to cavil at. As Scott has Bailie Nicol Jarvie say in Rob Roy, “there’s naething sae gude on this side o’ Time, but it might hae been better” – and that may be said of the EU, just as the Bailie said of the Union of 1707. People grumble about “Brussels bureaucracy” – though it is less onerous that the bureaucracy of Whitehall or Edinburgh. But the EU is a step towards the realisation of Robert Burns’s hope that “man to man, the warld o’er/ Shall brothers be , for a’ that.” That is why it is worth defending. That is why we shouldn’t leave it.
It’s unfortunate that this referendum will be contested at a time when huge numbers of migrants fleeing war, poverty and oppression are flocking into Europe and trying also to breach the borders of the UK. But, again, one has to say that the problems posed by this mass migration can be best addressed co-operatively, and the EU offers the means of doing so.
The situation would be much worse if the EU didn’t exist.
Of course the EU needs reforms. This is natural. Reform is a necessary means of regenerating political institutions. (The UK needs reforms; so does the Scottish Parliament.) But the simple truth is that if we vote to leave the EU, we shall be turning our backs on a noble experiment in co-operation between nations. If we choose to say “Britain can go it better alone”, we shall be opting for a Lesser, not Greater, Britain, a more selfish Britain, an unworthy Britain.