For those of us working in the UK HE sector, a vote to remain in the EU on Thursday feels partly survival instinct, and partly a plea for a better world, as Mark Leach very eloquently expressed in his blog on Friday (wonkhe.com/blogs/universities-have-a-responsibility-to-drive-us-to-a-better-world). I will of course be voting to stay in, notwithstanding a hugely disappointing, partisan campaign by the politicians in the Remain camp over the last few weeks.
Personally, though, the choice to stay in the European Union is not completely unequivocal. Living in France for 17 years gave me something of an insight into the political elite who would drive us to an ‘ever closer Union’. I was, and am still, persuaded for example by the arguments of a prominent member of the “Leave” campaign, the MEP Daniel Hannan, in his book “How We Invented Freedom”. He points out the values-based uniqueness of – in his term – an “Anglosphere” view of democracy, founded on personal freedom and resistance to autocratic power, dating back to the Magna Carta.
I always had the impression in France that once the democratic process had run its course and representatives elected, those representatives essentially became untouchable for their period of office. This was in part I think a reflection of the ‘power distance’ in France, the highest in the world; but it manifests itself in both the technocratic culture of the EU governance structures – very much a French brainchild – and also in the undue (in my view) deference in which continental politicians are held by their constituents. You only have to witness the highly choreographed TV ‘debates’ on TF1 to understand that point. This ‘untouchable’ mentality on the continent is in stark contrast with the relative accessibility of our British politicians to their public, brought into horrible focus last week by the murder of Jo Cox.
So I won’t be voting for ‘ever closer Union’ when I vote to stay in Europe. I’m optimistic in that regard. I happen to think that when we’ve voted to remain, the very fact that we were prepared ‘over here’ to risk throwing out the European project, will be a sufficient shock to those of a ‘closer Union’ tendency for it to lead to greater momentum away from the “Super State”. Staying in will give us the chance to influence the rules, rather than having them dictated to us as minor players on the periphery of power.
But in a larger sense, I feel that a vote to stay is a vote for inclusion, for participation, and for engagement, and a rejection of the values of dissociation, exclusion, and protectionism. The Leave campaign has revealed recently its dark, xenophobic underbelly; I’ve long thought that its raison d’être was less about reaching out to the rest of the world, and more about a misguided notion of protecting British exceptionalism.
Ultimately that’s the key reason, for me, why – paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson – it’s better for us to be on the inside of the tent.