On Friday I’ll get my country back. Britain will vote remain
The polls say the vote hangs in the balance. But I refuse to believe it. I don’t believe Britain will take leave of its senses and plunge down into the dark and rancid place the Brexiters would drag us. I want our country back – and I expect it to step back from the brink of this midsummer madness.
Waiting for the result, Thursday will feel like the longest day, though it’s not quite the solstice. I have no more evidence than anyone else, but I think I know this country isn’t the leave campaign’s ingrown place of phobias, conspiracies, fear of foreigners and all the politics of paranoid isolation.
Such passions are easily stirred by unscrupulous politicians stooping to blame migration for every ill of their own making. Any country can be roused by demagoguery to fear imaginary slights from enemies and invasions by outsiders. But at the deciding moment, those politics won’t win: a generous openness will beat meanness of spirit.
Reasons for remaining may not all be so elevated. For better and sometimes for worse, we are a small-c conservative country by nature, no great risk-takers. Never in the tempestuous last century were we much swayed towards either communism, fascism or any grand political passions. Sadly, nor was Britain much inspired by the fine ideals of a either: the last referendum turned on the price of New Zealand butter. The Ode to Joy will not ring out on Friday morning even if we stay.
You could call it tolerance or moderation, caution or a not entirely appealing phlegmatic stolidity. One oddity is that usually the old are national ballast, but this time they are the outers, and the anarchists and the young have the wisdom. When rightwing historian Andrew Roberts tries a romantic swash-buckling appeal – “Brexit will be good for British national character. It will reintroduce risk-taking and self-reliance” – you can almost hear a national shudder. Economic risk-taking is certainly not a national trait: concern for the handbag and wallet is likely to trump the Trump-style politics of race. Michael Gove himself warns there would be “bumps in the road”. But whose bumps? Whose job, whose child’s future?
We will never know if the swayed any votes or if a referendum tendency to revert to the status quo rescued us in the end. What stares people in the face is that voting for Faragism means getting Faragism – he who said it would be “legitimate” if people feel “voting doesn’t change anything then violence is the next step” as “our civilisation is under threat”. Whose civilisation? What of the extremism of Boris Johnson and Gove’s leave campaign that “murderers, terrorists and kidnappers from countries like Turkey could flock to Britain if it remains in the European Union”.
On yesterday’s Today programme Nigel Farage ended with “”, a theme that strikes a resonant chord, reprised by Johnson at a Sunday night rally. That’s what we all want – getting a grip. We are all out of control, the world too big, too noisy, too incomprehensible and unknowable to grasp. Here comes simplification, certainty and “control” – but that’s a meaningless vacuity.
Before the leavers descended into the anti-immigrant swamps, restoring sovereignty was their loftiest ideal, drawing some of the higher-minded to their side. With one bound we can be freed from the democratic deficit, the faceless bureaucrats, the EU laws we must obey. Sovereignty sounds magical, divine, absolute and indivisible. But what is it? If we have such a thing, what do we do with it? If every baby is born with it, we soon give it up. We sacrifice it in the daily compromises of family. We give it up to local community, to local council and to Westminster to make and enforce laws, taking our taxes to spend on protecting us and buying collectively what we cannot get for ourselves – everything public.
Nothing we buy in a shop is as valuable as what we buy together, with those gold sovereigns – though that’s not what the right believes. Democracy is one long surrender of sovereignty to the common good, and it secures our many freedoms. Those freedoms the EU promotes in this the most civilised, uncorrupt, humane part of the world, protected by a court of human rights, with social security a founding instinct. No wonder migrants and refugees flock to from conflict and instability elsewhere. What insanity to wish to escape it – all for some phantom “sovereignty”. There’s no hope of saving the planet without making rules together against scorching ourselves to death.
If the vote is for Brexit, all that beckons is what French finance minister Emmanuel Macron rightly calls “”. We will no longer be a United Kingdom, with Scotland gone and Ireland riven by a hard border. Over-dependent on a City fast losing business to the EU, all our worst propensities would see us scratch a disreputable living as Europe’s off-shore tax haven, casino and obsequious harbour for the world’s brigands. The BBC’s independence and global influence wouldn’t long survive the new regime. New trade? We export six times less to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined than to the EU – and more to Luxembourg than India.
The anti-politics, anti-human rights, anti-expert, know-nothing world of the new regime would be a post-reason place, taking the country back to when? When the economy staggers, with less to spend and people still seeing foreigners in their midst, where will the anger be directed next? What new enemies and betrayers will fill the space? Too late for buyers’ remorse.
I don’t believe those politics of isolation will win on Thursday. I can’t and won’t believe it – and if I’m wrong then being wrong is the least of the despair I shall feel. I believe we will remain. But even so, recovery from this acrid campaign will take more than a few puffs of political air freshener.
David Cameron and George Osborne are small men, with no vision to understand the causes of the indignation aroused. That’s for later, but right now Britain will hold, just, to its better self. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne had been an MP when he wrote that – and most of our MPs are with him.
• This article was amended on 23 June 2016. An earlier version said John Donne was an MP when he wrote “No man is an island”.