As a lifelong Euro-sceptic it pains me to say this, but come June 23rd I’ll be voting to stay IN the EU. I was just two years too young to vote in the referendum in 1975, and I recall my dismay at both being unable to vote and the result. And now I have to make a decision on how to vote, not on what I knew was right then, but on what is right for our country now. And there are many factors to consider.
I have always known that exiting the EU would lead to a period of economic turmoil as new trade agreements were negotiated and bedded in. It’s not within the gift of the OUT campaigners to reassure me otherwise, and generally they try to dodge this question. They point to Norway and Switzerland who have both remained outside the EU but negotiated trade agreements: the IN campaigners point out that those trade agreements are not exactly favourable and Norway at least has said we would be better staying in. Few people talk of our Commonwealth partners any more. Either way, nobody can really know how easy or difficult it will be, or how long it will really take, to negotiate and build new trading relationships around the world. But I was always willing to take that risk on the basis that things would eventually settle down. What I know this time around is that I do not trust our current government to have the economic understanding, nor the ability, desire or willingness to understand the needs of the common people, to undertake those negotiations in the best interests of the majority of the population. Austerity, privatisation and selling off the family silver in an ideologically driven laissez faire of economics has left many in a perilous state without any social safety net. And based on how long it has just taken David Cameron to negotiate a watered down version of what he wanted as a condition for staying in the EU, I don’t hold out much hope for more complex negotiations. And all of this in a world economic climate where another financial crash is imminently predicted.
Impact on society
Our country is in a highly weakened state. Our NHS is falling apart at the seams, burdened by insufficient funding to meet the debt repayments of PFI’s (Private Finance Initiatives), the consequence of which is that even more of it is being piecemeal privatised under the provision of the Health & Social Care Act 2012. This is not in the interest of the welfare of the majority of the population.
The mortality rate is rising, particularly among our most vulnerable members of society – the old, the sick, the disabled – as they are finding that health and social care services are no longer available (care packages for vulnerable elderly leaving hospital after a major operation are no longer available in the area where I live – they either have to stay in hospital or pay for private care). Our social housing is being privatised, with, for the first time since the 1960’s (and the incentive for the now classic film Cathy Come Home), some 50% of people in rented accommodation living in insecure private sector tenancies, while new rules will mean council tenants will be losing their right to lifelong tenancies. The so-called bedroom tax and caps to housing benefits are driving working families out of our cities, breaking up communities and families in the process. The rise in home ownership has stalled and is also dropping for the first time in 60 years. Today’s young generation will, once again, be ‘generation rent’.
Private companies, such as Virgin Care, are taking over more and more parts of our children’s services. Independent fostering agencies struggle with keeping costs down but provide an essential proportion of our foster care services. Elderly care and children’s residential care services have long gone to the private sector.
The problem with privatisation is that it costs more to run services as profits have to be made to cover extra layers of costs in the roles of different companies and their shareholders, and fragmentation of hierarchies means it is impossible to readily identify and correct problems before they have catastrophic implications (as highlighted by Margaret Heffernan in her book Wilful Blindness). I have seen this personally in the privatisation of social housing and fostering services. The poor and the taxpayer pay the cost.
The news media is full of stories of the worsening plight of the disabled as they are being pushed into ‘proving’ they cannot work, sometimes even in the face of a diagnosis of a lifelong degenerative condition such as Parkinson’s, and even those quite literally on their deathbeds. And yet still the present government wants to cut benefits for the working poor and disabled. As long ago as January 2014 the British government was criticised by Europe for providing too low a rate of Welfare Benefits – things have only got worse since.
Access to legal aid and justice in the courts has been curtailed for the poor by the removal of financial assistance to seek justice. Court costs to be paid upfront in tribunal cases discourages or even bars many working people from seeking justice in employment law. The introduction of JobCentre advisers into foodbanks is an indicator of just how mainstream this charity service has become.
I don’t need to read the reports of an unprecedented rise in foodbanks to know how vital these services have become – in my own area, with a population of c.150,000 there are six foodbanks operating that I personally know of; there may be more. Foodbanks are legally only allowed to provide tinned and packet goods and long term dependency on them does not leave much scope for healthy eating (in conflict with government targets to get us to eat more healthily).
This is all the result of the policies of our current Conservative government. There are only two possible brakes that can be put on their continuing with these and even harsher policies – the House of Lords (who are limited by the powers of the House of Commons itself and the threat of being inundated with government sympathisers) and the EU (who have become increasingly alarmed at the impact of Conservative policies).
It was clear during the relatively recent Scottish independence referendum that Scotland wanted to remain in the EU. A split UK vote, with Scottish voters voting to stay in the EU and English voters voting to leave would undoubtedly prompt calls for another Scottish Independence referendum. The complexities of negotiating their own membership separate from the UK was probably a significant factor in voting choices for a number of Scottish voters. If the UK has voted to exit the EU then a further Scottish referendum could well produce a different result. This will cause further chaos as English, Welsh and Northern Irish links with Scotland are untangled alongside the even more complex untangling of UK legislation from EU legislation.
Wars and international relations
No-one can truly predict the future, but one of the OUT arguments is that with Turkey wanting to join the EU and Turkey and Russia on opposing sides in the complex Syrian / ISIS conflict, we, as members of the EU would be drawn into a ware with Russia. That could happen anyway through NATO. The OUT campaign talk zenophobically of closing our borders to refugees and asylum seekers, which will not put us on good terms with our European neighbours and does little to accept the reality of the fact that Western interference is what has caused the current crisis (killing despotic leaders thus creating a vacuum to be filled by even more despotic terrorists). Becoming Little Englanders will not make these problems go away.
Finally, what do today’s young people want? Anyone under 40 has grown up only knowing Britain as part of the EU. Younger generations are more likely to identify as European. This is a part of their identity. Typically, those in their late teens and twenties are the least likely to vote, yet they will be the most affected by this decision. It’s an old (American) Indian position for the elders to make decisions based on the needs of future generations.
There will be talk of fear and safety versus forging a new brave way ahead. The latter will feed into the sense of Britishness that has been our history. But now is not the time to do it.