My dear Brexit friends,
How difficult this referendum has been for us. I know at least six of you who say you are going to vote for Britain to leave the EU.
As you know, I take a different view and will be voting enthusiastically to remain. I am completely convinced on several counts, economic and political stability being the main two. I also believe the European project – despite its obvious flaws – has a more generous, optimistic and progressive character than what is being offered by those who desire Brexit.
Where does that leave us?
The first thing is that we are still good pals, I hope. Some, but not all of you, are fishing friends, though I have to say I am going off fishing because, like at least one of you, I find being on the river bank sometimes reminds me of the destruction of the British countryside and the loss of habitat and species. It would be true to say therefore that the primary reason I go fishing is to see you.
There have been arguments this year. Two or three of them were quite sharp exchanges and certainly I have been guilty of fighting my position very fiercely indeed. You see, I don’t think that this is ordinary debate. As I say elsewhere on this site, it is not simply a choice between two equally valid options, because there is a demonstrably better case for remaining in Europe than the romantic leap in the dark that some of you propose.
I use the word ‘demonstrably’ because the benefits of the status quo are obviously more easily identified than the benefits of being outside Europe, about which we have almost no evidence. That is one of the reasons I am so mystified by your choice. “The man of conservative temperament,” said the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott in one of my favourite passages “believes that a known good is not lightly surrendered for an unknown better. He is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail unchartered seas.”
I am just astonished that you six – so smart, risk averse and prudent in everything you do – are prepared to throw caution to the wind. This isn’t just a fling; this is for the rest of our lives. A future generation may eventually rescue the situation if we come out, but not in time for us. We were the fools who threw it all away, despite the freedom and prosperity Europe has given us since 1975.
So what, you may say to all this. HP’s opinion is no better than mine and he can take a running jump with this bloody letter.
I would accept that at General Election time, when we are more tolerant of our political differences and we know that we can change our mind next time round, and when, by the way, I wouldn’t be telling you what I think about health or housing policy, or any of the rest of it.
But this is different.
The vote tomorrow is more about a contest of values and outlook than it is about politics. That’s why everyone is taking it more seriously than a general election. I don’t want to belong to a mean, narrow, slightly xenophobic country that is living in the past and regarding its neighbours suspiciously though net curtains. I like the challenges Europe presents – the need for us to compromise and to work on problems together. I like the stability Europe gives us. I like the freedom of movement – for me and the other 500 million people. And I like the thrilling sense of possibility that being part of Europe inspires in me. As I said at the start, generosity, optimism and progress is what the pro-EU stance encapsulates and these are the things I stand for in this debate.
For me these values are superior to mere political opinion. They are as important to me as liberty, justice and democracy.
But clearly I have to accept that you, dear friends, do not agree with me. You have another set of priorities: I must assume your values are different to mine and that you do not share the real horror I have of Brexit and of the turmoil that we will bring to our neighbours. Incidentally, there is a good reason that all far right and fascist parties in Europe want us to leave the EU: we will give them considerable encouragement if we do.
Where does that leave us? Well, I have had to think about that very hard because I happen not to accept the orthodoxy that friendship must continue come what may. At least two of you have said to me that friends should never fall out over politics – I agree. But, as I say, the vote tomorrow isn’t about politics. So the usual wisdoms do not apply. It seems harsh, perhaps, but at least I honour the idea of friendship with the belief that it is voluntary and may therefore periodically come under review.
When I mentioned this thought over the last few weeks, people have looked slightly horrified and started quoting E.M. Foster at me. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” he wrote in What I Believe, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This is not strictly applicable because we are not talking about love of country. However, I know what they mean: they believe love of one’s friends should trump any other allegiance.
However, there must be a point where that can’t be right. For instance, in the Thirties when members of the British upper and working classes began to look enviously towards Germany and marched around in black shirts, terrorizing the East End. That was a deal breaker, if ever there is one. For me, the support of any totalitarian regime or practice is intolerable, as I think it is for most people.
So, we can perhaps agree that there is a point where breaking off relations, or allowing them to lapse is legitimate and not simply a betrayal of the friendship.
The outcome of this debate is so important that, yes, people will find that they cannot continue the relationships they had before. I regard the Leave camp as being prey to a romantic spasm at best, and a rather sinister arrogance and xenophobia at worst. Though I may understand some of it, I do not believe it is a coherent approach to Britain’s future and so I deplore it.
Of course, I’m aware that some of you will change your vote in these last few hours, having had much fun casting a fly over me. But some of you will continue with this madness. You really meant what you said.
Perhaps quiet dismay is the only response to that, and whatever the result, we should get on with our imperfect lives and our imperfect friendships and leave the awfully venomous atmosphere of the referendum campaign in the past.
Like most people, I have absolutely hated every moment of it and object to the amount of brain time it has taken these past three months, but this doesn’t mean I will forget the arguments, or the sharp differences between us. That may also be true of you, for this obviously is a two way street.
I hope things work out for us, and that we go on seeing each other. I admit that if my side wins I will be a lot more forgiving than if we lose. That makes me a sore loser, I agree, but then I will be in mourning for a project that was as brave and beautiful as anything in European history.
With best wishes,