Adam Somerset explores the historical and cultural aspects of the EU referendum debate.
With the May elections done the referendum campaigns have swiftly become inexorable. The noise promises that the four weeks to go will feel long and heavy. If political stance is filtered through personal experience then the view from someone who was there last time for Harold Wilson’s referendum of 1975 is going to be distinct. Even more so when the same viewer two years earlier had travelled to cold-war Berlin in nine or ten lorries over two days, confident of work.
In the event the finding of work took three hours. Instructed by a weary supervisor to head to the employment office for the necessary permissions I spoke with the utter certainty of teenagehood. “Nicht noetig. Europaische Gemeinschaftsmitglied gibt Arbeitsrechte.” “We are in the EEC. I can work, no papers.” Britain’s membership of Europe was seven months old. To be a member of that very first cohort of the Common Market was liberation.
I have attended one public meeting on the referendum. A former Westminster Cabinet Minister, addressing a packed hall, tried to evoke a past of which his audience could have no concept. An arrival in Heathrow or Dover would be met with hordes of customs officers. The scrutiny of every item of purchase was prolonged. To have memories of that time is the preserve of a minority.
Except that the minority who might remember is the bloc most firm in wanting departure. Newsnight has in recent years often been shrill and shallow but among the media it is having the best referendum and for a good reason. It is offering nuance and a meeting of minds that is more than declamation followed by refutation. Its coverage has included an encounter of poignancy. Their interviewee said “England can never get back to what it used to be”.
The speaker was not so far ahead of my age. It looked as though the national condition had grafted itself onto the disappointments of old age and ill-health to create sadness. More often than not, once the declarations of the professionals are over, the images seem to be capturing sadness and dismay among the old. .
Newsnight was in Eastbourne a few days later. A group of pensioners, in good heath and of robust views, met a group of the young. It was clear that the young had no concept of what their elders were feeling. If anything they had puzzlement as to what this sacred England was- the word is always England. Of course, to posit an England that was better is to ask when this age was. It was never so in my lifetime. Three winters running as a teenager I would be woken by my mother holding a candle in a home unlit and unheated due to industrial strife. Teachers were free to hurt children as it took their fancy. A young workmate of mine in the 1980s took a lunchtime walk and was witness to a cascade of blown-up limbs and body parts. If there was ever a better Britain than now it was never part of my experience.
The polls have not shifted in years. The referendum is a division across the generations. It is an eighty-twenty split, in against out, young against old. That the over-fifties are pitted against the under-fifties is bad for politics and bad for civic society. The concept of winner-takes-all on a matter of constitutional gravity is crude but characteristic.
The Leave Campaign has some good points. Its reduction to a moneybox slogan has buried the better sense of its views. Chris Grayling for one has spelt it out carefully. Population movement occurs with rapidity, far faster than the decisions on capital allocations and the provisions of public services. Grayling is correct, to maintain the status quo will make the work for schools and hospitals very hard.
One topic is missing, that of the capital city. Europe has a score of historic capital cities. But no nation of Europe has a capital that is so out of scale with its hinterland, in terms of demography, cultural dominance, wealth and tax base. In that respect Britain more resembles a Bolivia or Bengal. For fifty years London was shrinking. In February 2015 it returned to its peak population and passed it. That figure was 8,615,000 people. A megalopolis of twelve million is forecast. Like a politics that pits the generations against each other a capital that is so disconnected from its country cannot be good.
The most used phrases in the campaigns are repeated over and over with scant scrutiny. “Take our rightful place as a great trading nation” is one. But adjacency and proximity are the biggest factors for economic activity. Most of the USA economy is within states or across a neighbouring state border or two. Supply chains stretch across continents but they are subordinate to the geography of adjacency.
“Gain control of our borders” is the other. The lead-time now in London to get a domestic house painted is around a year. The supply of builders and craftsmen is going to come. The city has its dozens of towers waiting to be built and the manpower needed to build and service them will come irrespective of law or prohibition. .
The United Kingdom is not an island anyhow; it has a land border. Newsnight, again to its credit, went to the border between Ulster and the Republic. It is a place now of ease and free movement. The re-creation of a heavily armed frontier is inconceivable to those who live there. The likelihood of a second land border, Tweed to Solway Firth by 2025, is feasible. I have only ever seen one true border under control. True control means patrol. It was a chilly zone of felled trees, infrared detectors and minefields.
A J P Taylor voted “Out” in 1975. All customs unions in history have collapsed, he said. In addition he did not care for Roy Jenkins. He was right about the past. Older customs unions did not last but the EU has. The strains are in the currency, not the concept of the single market. But then as another historian put it “When a public figure says “History tells us..” switch off immediately.” History is what happened last time. Its first lesson is that the future is categorically never extrapolation of the past.