Thirteen days from now, we will have discovered our destiny, as the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union has taken on more meaning than was ever intended. While the original 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the “Common Market” was more centred on the price of food, with its talk of butter mountains and wine lakes, this vote has blown past concern over the economy, and even over migration, becoming a moment when we are expected to decide what sort of country we want to live in... at least, that is how it seems to me.
Last Monday, I took delivery of my postal vote, which was completed and sent away the following day. While I am in the seemingly enviable position of no longer having to listen to the slanging match being played out in our 24-hour news cycle, having heard enough to decide which way to vote, I am experiencing as much anxiety over the result as I did when Scotland voted on independence in 2014.
I didn’t have a vote for that one but, if Scotland had voted to leave the UK, I would surely have had a migraine, as I consider myself more to be British than English, and taking Scotland out of the equation would be like putting your hand through a spider’s web of cultural identity built up over centuries. Cultural identity is why I also consider myself to be European, but this is more a way of saying “not American,” in that we just don’t think or do things in the same way.
However, Britain is often seen as “in Europe, but not run by Europe,” taking a phrase used by then Conservative Party leader William Hague at the 2001 General Election. While the UK had originally joined the European Economic Community, and had a referendum on that, it has not yet had a referendum over the change into the European Union, created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The referendum we are having now is the culmination of over twenty years of feeling that we are dealing with more than we have signed up for – it is not a case of whether you agree with laws that the EU has set, it is whether we should be accepting them at all.
This is where the issue of British national identity has been used to colour the debate – that we can only properly exercise that identity if we have full control over our own affairs. The growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party seen in the last ten years has come from turning it from a one-issue group, grown from the original Anti-Federalist League that opposed signing the Maastricht Treaty. However, in becoming a right-wing populist party, in opposition to the main three parties, meant that voting for UKIP to leave the EU means you have to subscribe to their other policies too, and the ideology that formed them, which would be difficult for some. Would this also mean that, if we voted to stay in the EU, would a UKIP win in a General election undo that decision?
The wanting to have a simple non-partisan vote on EU membership can be traced back to the Referendum Party of 1994-97, which shared UKIP’s Euroscepticism, but only existed to put the issue to a democratic vote – if it was, the party would disband. In the 1997 General Election, the Referendum Party did not contest seats where the candidate most likely to win had wanted the same thing as they did, but wound up folding after its leader died. With the Conservative Party back in power by themselves from 2015, voted in on the promise of a referendum before the end of 2017, the argument over having a vote was now decided.
In that case, why are we having the referendum in 2016? Is it because of the ongoing migration issue, or the increased clamour of the public and politicians to have the vote, or is it David Cameron, who had resisted the calls for the vote, but changed his mind in 2013, simply wants the matter dealt with once and for all? The answer is most likely all of these, plus any others you can think of.
Because so many people have wanted this referendum, the debate is almost perfunctory, as the ramifications of leaving or staying in the EU is only informed guesswork. We have no idea of how the rest of the world will really react to the final decision, and there is no option of maintaining the status quo either.
This feels very much like a referendum on the sort of country we see ourselves to be, as how we want to be governed is only a part of that. All I hope is this – that the final decision of the people is respected, and that it is enacted in the interests of everyone.