There is so much that is mockable about the Leave campaign. There is an air of Monty Python to the crusade. On the one hand, the multiplicity of Leave groupuscles brings to mind the arguments between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in ‘Life of Brian’. On the other, their attacks on the European Union (EU) are a very unfunny reprise of ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ Then there’s their complete inability to decide on how to describe the position of the UK post-Brexit. Norway? Switzerland? Albania?
One could go on, but what’s the point? Mockery doesn’t hurt them, let alone stop them – in a funny way it strengthens them. The Leave campaign are the political equivalent of Millwall – everyone laughs at them, they don’t care. The best attack is always the one that focuses on the strengths of your opponent rather than the weaknesses. If you can destroy the strengths then the weaknesses will take care of themselves.
So, what is the strength of Leave? Like all nationalist movements – and it is a nationalist movement – it has massive reservoirs of pride. Listen to their core arguments – ‘We can make it!… Fifth biggest economy in the world!… Europe needs us!’ Basically, a version of the Low cartoon – ‘Very well, alone’. How do you fight that pride? With pride of your own.
The problem with Remain is that they are, in Nye Bevan’s phrase ‘desiccated calculating machines’. They fight pride with PowerPoint, passion and emotion with facts and figures. There is a place for that, and rational arguments must never be ceded. There is a time too for swagger and pride.
There can be pride that the EU exists and has brought democracy and prosperity to countries that were freed from dictatorship not once, but twice. The first time that Spain and Portugal joined the EU was after the death of Franco and the fall of Salazar. The second time was when the countries occupied by the Soviet Union or oppressed by communist dictatorships were freed. The combination of growth, prosperity and democracy is not just good in itself but a beacon to the world. This is just one area in which the EU has been an unequivocal force for good in the world. Remain campaigners should boast about this and if they are challenged they should ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be better for Ukraine and Georgia to be part of the EU?’. Or, more brutally, ‘Why does Putin’s Russia want to stop them joining?’.
There can be pride too in the diversity that EU enlargement has brought to Britain. The UK is made up of migrants of different faiths and nationalities – from Irish Catholics to Indian Sikhs – and has been enriched by labour mobility. Just as Nigerians have revived inner city Anglican churches, so too have Polish Catholics brought new life to declining Catholic parishes across the country. Is integration an issue? In places. But is the work ethic of the Romanians and Bulgarians who work in the fields of East Anglia and Lincolnshire is at odds with Britishness? It isn’t. It may be a challenge to the assumptions and expectations of native born Brits, but in no way is it alien to this great country where to work and save, and to strive and aspire, is in our DNA.
And if anyone says that they are worried by the number of refugees who want to come to Britain, then they need a telling too. We should be proud that people believe in British values so much that they want to settle here, and not in France or Italy. We are as ‘Great’ as the Brexiteers argue, but we don’t need to pull up the draw-bridge to prove it.
Pride, finally, is in the British ideas at the heart of Europe. The European Convention on Human Rights is written by a British politician. It gives rights and freedoms to all citizens based on our British historic tradition. That would be great enough in itself, but then there’s also the Single Market – Margaret Thatcher’s gift to the EU. Characteristically clear-sighted, she saw that a reduction of all the trade and non-trade barriers within the EU would be a huge advantage to the UK. And it has proven to be the case, though more slowly than anticipated. The success that Britain’s service industries have had in the decades since the Single Market have brought prosperity to our country – and to Europe.
This is the real reason for staying – staying to lead. Let’s concede one of the main Remain arguments – Britain does not ‘need’ Europe. But let’s trump it – Europe needs Britain.