Part One — What is Wrong with the EU
I was a voter in the referendum held in 1975 when we were asked to vote on whether or not we should remain in or leave the Common Market. We had been taken into the Common Market by Edward Heath in 1973 without a real mandate for doing so. This is supported by the fact that his parliamentary majority was achieved with only 33% of the electorate voting for his party. Nevertheless, and despite my concerns about the lateness of the referendum, I voted in favour of remaining because I believed it was good for business and good for the country.
But I became more and more concerned about our membership of what was originally called The Common Market, and what appeared to be the dramatic change in the nature of the European project, very depressed by the unaccountability of its stewardship and distressed at the apparent disconnect with anyone outside the political class.
Over many more years, dramatic changes to the constitution of the EU were agreed and imposed with no consultation or involvement of the electorate. The Single European Act, The Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty were all implemented, cementing us into a group of very diverse countries; yet we, the people, were treated as bystanders. And while not necessarily against the will of the people, we were not consulted and our views went unheard.
Thousands of regulations came pouring forth from the EU apparently created either in a vacuum or at most at the behest of powerful and wealthy lobbyists whose interests lie with their paymasters and big corporations — not with the electorate or smaller businesses.
Then of course there was the Euro. Such a ridiculous political act, created despite the obvious practical and financial defects which have since caused such tremendous hardship in some of the countries that decided to join in this currency debacle. Again, as a country, we were not consulted about membership or otherwise.
There was an overwhelming feeling of having little or no influence over the treaties or the regulations being imposed on us as individuals, as businesses or as a country. Furthermore, the people putting forward these regulations were not accountable to us as voters — or it seems to anyone at all. Commissioners were appointed who were often those that had failed to get elected by a democratic system in their own country (including the UK). This bureaucratic establishment appeared to just grow without control, passing more and more regulations which were hidden from most of us until they were suddenly presented as a fait accompli.
Dramatic changes to the EU constitution were made, affecting all our lives, without us being asked for views at any stage. My concern was that the size of this governmental machine that was creating all these regulations and making such dramatic changes, was so enormous that there was no way for ordinary people to influence it.
Contacting your MP was ineffective because they seemed to be as frustrated and helpless as the rest of us, and could only write to the relevant Secretary of State or Minister, who would write back with meaningless rhetoric signifying nothing. So called debates re any new treaty or regulation were never real debates and ended up simply as a rubber-stamping exercise.
MEPs of course have little or no connection with the electorate, simply coming onto the scene every four years to get re-elected, before disappearing off to Europe again. Each of us having 7 MEPs means none of us are effectively represented — and anyone who has tried to contact their MEP will know this as they will rarely get a response.
Nor did voting for different parties in a GE ever present a way of protesting about this fast-growing political machine, because the leadership of all three major parties were completely committed to the idea of membership of what became the EU.
The only protesting party was UKIP, but instead of responsibly wanting to reform and improve the EU they wanted to destroy it and take us out; but millions voted for them — and what alternative did they have? UKIP, in the image of Nigel Farage, used the disconnect between the political classes and the electorate to build a perception that all our problems were caused by the EU and, in particular, immigration through the free movement of labour. Despite my firmly held views regarding the deficiencies of the EU, I always believe this to be false, but it clearly struck a chord with millions of people.
Part Two — The Referendum
Imagine the desperation, frustration and anger. There was simply nowhere to go and nothing to be done. Then Cameron, increasingly concerned about progress being made by UKIP, offered us a chance to, at least, express our views even if it was just “advisory”. His logic was simple — and I have no doubt Labour would have done the same. They were both being slayed by UKIP and the only way out was to offer us a specific vote on EU membership.
But before the referendum Cameron told us he would attempt to negotiate a better deal for the UK and try to relieve our concerns about EU membership. We were subsequently told he had achieved this and hoped we would accept his recommendation and vote to remain. Except of course, there were major flaws in his plan.
Firstly, the whole idea of trying to negotiate “special terms of membership for the UK” was never my aim and was never going to work for me. My concerns were all about the way the EU operated, its unaccountability and democratic deficit, and the apparent pettiness of some regulations being imposed. I was also very unhappy about the scandals relating to the huge waste of money that continues to take place — including expense claims which do not have to be justified, upheaval of moving the EU government from Brussels to Strasbourg every month for 4 days, and the fact that there was so much corruption.
Secondly, while UKIP successfully indoctrinated the media and many voters into thinking immigration was the real or main issue (a common theme for populist politicians to find a specific target to blame); this was not the problem at all. It was mainly our inability to influence the EU or our own government in making decisions about immigration or anything else. Having said that I am quite sure there are a number of bigots around who actually believe their own bigotry!
Thirdly, despite his failure to negotiate any change in relationship with the EU, Cameron told us he had been able to do so. Lies like this became a feature of the referendum on both sides. But I was never persuaded by the scams and lies from either side, the sad reality being that many people were only too familiar with lies from politicians to be persuaded by them. I also discounted most economic arguments from both sides knowing that economists rarely agree on what the future holds. In any case we were led to believe that our future relationship would be similar to Norway, Switzerland or Canada and that little financial harm would result.
Fourthly, Cameron was far too simplistic in asking a binary question in the referendum. To simply ask “in” or “out” was never going to solve anything because in either case what followed was never going to be simple or obvious. A marginal vote to remain would have resulted in UKIP becoming stronger — and the result always looked like being close. At least a remain vote would have left us in a familiar place. But the leave vote was disastrous simply because no one could agree (and still cannot) on what we expected our future relationship to be. And now more than 3 years later we are on a cliff edge of leaving with no agreement whatsoever. The worst conclusion of all possible conclusions.
The vote to leave has led to the parlous state we now find ourselves in. May became PM after Cameron’s resignation. She appeared to be quite secretive about negotiations and her government’s plans for leaving the EU, but nevertheless she did actually reach an agreement with the EU. But importantly, what came out of these discussions, previously un-noticed by many, as how we deal with the Irish border.
Part Three — My Change of Heart
I voted to leave. Much to the distress of many close to me, but to the delight of many others. Very few people, I discovered, were half hearted about their vote. I have had hours of discussion and debate with so many people, close family, close friends, relative strangers and casual acquaintances, both verbally and through online media. Most impressive of all were younger people some still in their early teens who, until the referendum, would have shown disdain for any political discussion. I was distressed by a number of people who attitude was that I was stupid, too old or simply racist. I do not and did not regard myself as being any of those things.
And so, I changed my mind — which, I believe, was a healthy reaction to the debate that followed the vote. But I do not regret my vote. I voted for what I believed. Simply helping to cause the debate that followed made my vote worthwhile. The lengthy and usually friendly (but not always) conversations were real and an attempt to understand why our positions were so different. But a number of factors led me to change my mind.
Firstly, the dramatic changes to our relationship with the USA. Trump becoming president has threatened the future of NATO, imposed tariffs on UK and EU exports and generally brought instability and chaos to the security of the world. Coupled with the known territorial ambitions by Putin (possibly aided by Trump) it does not seem to be a good time to isolate ourselves from our real allies.
Secondly the lack of confidence I have in the ability of both the Tory government, and Labour the official opposition, to negotiate a reasonable leave agreement. And the fact that our present PM seems to prefer “no deal” which would have the effect of dramatically damaging this country for many years. This is despite an outpouring of support since the referendum to revoke article 50 and remain in the EU as well as an online petition signed by more than 6 million people. The fact is I do not trust many of our MPs to act in the interests of our country or the electorate.
Thirdly, and this is the biggest factor, the realisation that my discontent with the EU, was actually more to do with the lack of real democracy in the UK. The fundamental problem being that over almost 50 years of membership of the EU and its forerunners, all our political leaders, instead of being open and honest about where the EU was headed, tried to assuage our fears of a United States of Europe by lying to us. It was known from the start that the whole European project was meant to build a United States of Europe. I believe most people would have accepted this and been comfortable with it had our political class been more honest. Instead they tried to create a feeling that we were in the EU under sufferance, and that we were different to all the other countries and needed “special terms” of membership just for the UK.
Instead we should have become leaders of the EU project, if not right at the front at least alongside Germany and France as the leading nations, holding all the others together and ensuring that democratic forces prevailed.
By pretending that our membership was an ongoing battle to highlight our differences, and to preserve a special status most of us ended up feeling that our friends in Europe were our enemies.
So, the battleground is here at home. Our democracy is under threat because the continuous improvement necessary for its survival has halted. A final and perfect state of democracy can never be achieved — but improvements and excellence have to be fought for every inch of the way. All improvements in the democratic process have been resisted by whoever held power at the time, whether it was noblemen seizing power from the Monarch, or women demanding the vote which led to the Representation of the People Act 1918. When a “gift” of democracy is granted seemingly gratuitously, as when 18-year olds were allowed to vote, it was by a government in power who expected to gain from it!
Part Four — What Next
My belief is that, for the sake of our own well-being and for a more secure world we should now fight for the following:
1. To remain in the EU.
2. Introduce a proper form of PR in UK elections so that votes for a party and its policies, are reflected much more closely with seats in parliament and, by default, our government.
3. Votes for those aged 16 years
4. Peoples Conventions drawn from the electorate to be held to discuss important and major proposed legislation as in Ireland before the referendum on abortion.
5. Referenda to be held, and to be potentially binding on governments, using a similar system to that used in Switzerland.
6. For our UK political leaders to become advocates of the EU, not apologists and to show some real leadership qualities and:
a. to throw everything they’ve got into making the EU a responsive democratic organisation that all its members want to belong to
b. to work alongside and to persuade the other leaders of EU members that this is the only way the EU will survive and prosper
c. to dispel the notion that some members appear to hold, that they have joined because of what they expect to get out of membership — not what, working together as a group, they can contribute to the world.
The EU must become a force for good, liberal, democratic and peaceful stability the world over. It has the power and the means — it now just needs the determination and leadership. We must be part of it — not run away and hide from it!