Why I think the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union
These last few weeks have been absurdly busy, and even without Thursday’s referendum, next week promises to be even busier. I will, however, definitely make time to vote and I urge you to do the same, whichever way you feel inclined to cast your ballot.
A number of my friends and colleagues have been posting on social media about why they plan to vote for one side or the other, or in some cases already have voted ( by postal ballot), so I thought I’d do the same today. I don’t suppose my ramblings will change anyone’s mind, and that’s not the reason for posting this anyway. It’s just a personal opinion, that’s all. It’s fine if yours is different. I have friends who disagree strongly with what I’m going to say, but we’re still friends. There’s no reason to think that will change whichever way the vote goes, although I am deeply worried about what damage the campaign has done to British political culture (which was deeply flawed before it started).
Let me start with a bit of biography that might explain why I see things the way I do. I was born in Wallsend on Tyneside in 1963. My parents were both born just before World War 2 started also in the area where I was born. Of my four grandparents, one was born in England, one in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland, and one in Wales. I always smile when I get to right my nationality on a form, because I put “United Kingdom”. Of course being born in England makes me English too, but I find that less defining than “UK” or even “Geordie”. To be honest, my ancestry means that I generally find the whole concept of nationality fundamentally silly. I find nationalism silly too, except for those occasions – regrettably frequent – when nationalism takes on the guise of xenophobia. That is happening now in the United Kingdom, a point I will return to later.
I don’t come from a wealthy background. Holidays abroad were an unaffordable luxury when I was a kid. In fact, the only members of my immediately family ever to venture abroad before I did for the first time (in 1986) were my grandfather’s brother (who died at Arnhem in 1944), his cousin (who died at the Salerno landings in 1943), and my uncle Richard who crossed the Rhine with the British Army in 1945 and was stationed in the devastated city of Hamburg for the duration of his National Service; he at least survived the War.
I had the good fortune to be born during a time of peace and relative prosperity, and have experienced immense good fortune in my life. I got a scholarship to go to a very good school and thence won a place at Cambridge University, where I did well enough to go onto a PhD here at the University of Sussex. Thirty years ago last summer, when I was 23, I went abroad for the very first time – to a cosmology conference in Cargèse, in Corsica. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to travel widely in Europe and beyond, meeting and working with some wonderful people. What little sense of nationality I started with has diminished steadily with time, and I now have no difficulty at all in adding another label to my identity: European. I’m British and I’m European. And proud to be both. That statement alone has led to me being called a “traitor”, such are the depths to which this wretched referendum campaign has sunk. Fortunately I an nowhere near sufficiently important or prominent for anyone to assassinate.
The United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (as it was then called) in 1973, when I was ten years old. The EEC morphed into the EU in 1993, but in some form or another it has been a fact for all of my adult life. There is no question in my mind that Britain’s membership has been has been very good for Britain and for the other member states. We pay a subscription to the modern EU that amounts to around 0.5% of our public spending and for that we get preferential access to a free market that gives us around ten times as much back in trade and inward investment.
My career in science gives a perspective on this too. The UK is a member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Space Agency (ESA), all of which have been stunningly successful. None of these are actually European Union organizations. ESO and CERN were founded in the 1950s and ESA in the 1970s, all before the EU formally came into existence. But they do serve as models for why the EU is such a good thing in a wider sense than the science that they do. Members of ESO, CERN and ESA pay a subscription which amounts to a pooling of resources into a pot far bigger than any individual country could manage. Each organization is run by a council that makes collective decisions on where and what to invest. The UK has a strong influence on those decisions. By being a member it has a seat at the table and a voice in the discussions. The net result is that each of these organizations is much more than the sum of its parts.
That model that works so well for ESO, CERN and ESA is basically the model for the European Union. Even when they’re not lying about the cost of membership as the official Vote Leave campaign consistently does, people tend to talk in a very short-sighted way about the amount we pay and how much we get back. That’s the wrong way to look at it. The point is that, just as with scientific organizations, the EU is more than the sum of its parts. Pooling some resources and doing things collectively does, for certain things, give a value way beyond the relatively small amount we invest. But remember that we only pool 0.5% of our public funds in this way. It’s an astonishingly good deal. And, what’s more, it’s mutually beneficial. The UK benefits and the other EU member states benefit too. It’s not “us” versus “them”, it’s “we”.
Now I know that BrExit advocates will say. “You profit from EU grants! You’ve been bought off by the EU! You’ve a vested interest!” I’ve been attacked on social media repeatedly for having the temerity to argue that EU membership is as good for science as it is for everything else. But the fact of the matter is that the accusation is completely false. My own research is wholly funded from UK sources. I don’t have any EU funding at all. Even if I had I’d still have a right to express my opinion, but I don’t. I haven’t been “bought off” by anyone. I’ve thought about the issues and come to my own conclusion. You can do that in a free country.
The EU is by no means perfect. I think it could be made more accountable, more democratic. I understand those concerns, but I do feel that they’re hard to justify coming from one of the least democratic countries in Europe. We have an entirely unelected House of Lords, and a House of Commons that has delivered an overall majority to a party with a minority share of the popular vote. Pot calling the kettle black?
I think the economic, educational, cultural and societal benefits of EU membership have been discussed widely in the referendum campaign so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll just say that I think the benefits are immense, and the risk to this country if they are lost is huge.
But there is one reason over and above all this why I shall be voting to Remain in the EU. For this I will quote note other than Boris Johnson, who wrote just two years ago in his biography of Winston Churchill:
It was his (Churchill’s) idea to bring those countries together, to bind them together so indissolubly that they could never go to war again – and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success? Together with Nato the European Community, now Union, has helped to deliver a period of peace and prosperity for its people as long as any since the days of the Antonine emperors.
I won’t comment on why Boris Johnson has changed his mind, but I agree with that statement. It brings me back to the bit of personal family history with which I started this post. I have been lucky enough to live in the period of “peace and prosperity” described in that quote. I am sorry my grandfathers’ generation was not so lucky. I don’t have any children of my own, but I categorically refuse to take any step that would risk any future generation having to endure the same horrors.
And then there’s this.
The top left image shows a poster produced by the UK Independence Party. The other three are taken from a Nazi propaganda film of the 1930s. The historical parallels are obvious and not accidental. This is indeed “Breaking Point” indeed. It’s the point the BrExit campaign descended into the gutter.
Of course I’m not saying that all those who want the UK to Leave the EU are fascists. Far from it. Many – indeed the majority – are reasonable, civilised people. But like it or not, if you vote Leave you’re voting the way the far right want you to vote. I for one will not take a single step in that direction. Fascism only needs a foot in the door. I fear that the domestic political consequences of BrExit will give it far more than that. Once they get hold of it, we’ll never get our country back.
One final point. On Thursday I will definitely vote for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU. However, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allows any member state to leave the European Union, and sets a protocol for how this can be achieved. This demonstrates that the UK has sovereignty over its own affairs, thus defeating one of the central arguments of the Leave campaign.Follow @telescoper