Adam Somerset explores the dissonance, history and the grip of autobiography around the EU referendum campaign.
A woman, white-haired and of great age, is filmed for television taking her postal vote to the letter box. “To regain our dignity,” she says, posting her vote for separation. I have no idea – no idea of any kind – of what is in her head. All humans live within history, but every person’s sense of history is their own, part-given and part-sought-out.
Hilary Benn addressed a packed hall in the London School of Economics in February. He gave four reasons for his commitment. One was his personal history, Cabinet experience with responsibility for Environment. The small relinquishing of sovereignty for collective action on climate change gave Britain power not weakness, he said.
Benn – forever the younger Benn for those of a certain age – asked of his audience who had any memory of the time before European Union. Mine was one of four or five upraised hands. Benn evoked scenes from my memory. A return trip from Calais entailed an hour’s wait. Forty-five customs officer scrutinised every vehicle, questioned every driver. At Heathrow a cassette player would have the Customs Officer asking for a receipt for proof that it was a British purchase and not a smuggled import.
The last reason that Benn gave was the most abstract. To secede would be to betray the ideals of the architects of the post-war settlement. Benn was born in November 1953. Each decade of birth throws up its own particular set of historical circumstance. To be a child of the fifties is specific. The War was not there but its residue was all around. Air raid shelters were a place for slightly scary play. Every parent had his or her story. The family man next door had been in Lancasters. The one beyond had the metal leg that was source of fascination for children. The father in the house beyond had been captured at Dunkirk, his whole War a prison camp. For Benn Europe is inseparable from a Europe for the first time at peace.
The separatists deny this, noting the distinction between the EU and NATO. They are correct. But we live within the detail of experience. I once spent seven hours in the company of a NATO official. He was en route to a control hub in Oklahoma to iron out a misunderstanding between allies. That is probably seven hours more direct experience of NATO than the average Briton. NATO is an abstraction while the EU is real; it is all around. It is the Slovak up a ladder scraping paint; it is the West Wales teenager who wants to be ski instructor. He just goes to the Alps and learns to do what he is good at. When a senior jurist speaks of liberty there are many liberties; that for a young person to learn a craft is one among them.
June 23rd has set the old against the young, London against Lincolnshire, Caerphilly against Ceredigion, England against Scotland. Whatever the outcome, the divisions will remain bitter. It will weaken the bonds of the United Kingdom. I have listened to dozens of voices and have learned nothing. I have heard the clarion cry a hundred times of “control our borders.” I have heard a Cabinet Minister Out-er deny categorically that the near four hundred mile land border will have any control. There will be no passport checks in Ireland, she says. I cannot fathom this concept of border controls without controls.
If the weeks have imparted anything it is that public stance has little to do with financial calculation. Look only to farmers. The Treasury will never replicate the CAP. If the majority of farmers want out it is because it correlates with their age bracket. Human consciousness is impossibly dense, conviction located implicitly within a tangled cognitive thicket. The eighty-year old with her motive to regain national dignity is an equal moral being and equally an unfathomable stranger. The only thing I have learned is that we are prisoners of our experience, that no one can un-become themselves. The polls record that hardly a vote has swayed in the clamour. Those who have a firmness of a view were of the same view five years ago.
We think in general but we live in detail. Television has hosted many a discussion. Only one of my viewings has been illuminating, assisted by the tenor of its civility. Economics was pitched against sovereignty. The Evan asked for a show of hands. Sovereignty is vague and economics itself abstruse. But jobs, income and tax are concrete. The balance against sovereignty was overwhelming. A show of hands in a studio connects but little with the reality of a piece of paper and a pencil hovering over a few inches of decision. But it connects with key moments in the course of the Scottish referendum. Status quo versus uncertainty, even without fog and rancour, is a balance out of kilter.