Dear Brexit Friends Can friendship survive a vote to leave?

in Referendum by

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,

HP

4 Comments

  1. Henry, I adore your passion, your honesty & your clarity of mind. I agree with what you write about the folly & self-delusion of the Brexit camp. I value your friendship above all. Matt

  2. Dear Henry – and forgive me, all, because some of you – like me – have Brussels experience. Today I have Miranda and Charlie especially in mind: they have a longer future.

    You know that, like Matt, I have every sympathy with your position and I agree with what you wrote. Many of our shared experiences stem from our shared sense of history and internationalism – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring etc.

    The referendum, as you say, is not an ordinary poll but the existential question on Europe, and its architects openly see it as the chance to break up the EU itself. It has evoked dangerous passions.

    The EU has many faults: I was credited by the Dutch whistleblower for my role in bringing down the EU Commission en masse in 1999 for malpractice. But it has changed, much for the better (see my review of Dan Hannan’s specious but influential book ‘Why Vote Leave’ here http://bit.ly/1UoVO5W )

    You know that for some years after my election as an MEP in 1984 I wrestled within an increasingly Eurosceptic party and, when Cameron finally split with the European mainstream in 2009 (Hannan’s project), I protested and left, thereby ending my parliamentary career.

    Earlier, I was fortunate to play my part in the EU’s most historic achievement, the absorption, democratisation and normalisation of Western parts of the ex-Soviet bloc, by founding what is still the world’s largest democracy-promotion programme (www.eidhr.eu). More recently it has taken on Putin, through effective sanctions (I’m one of eight Brits on his visa blacklist) and strenuously tried to keep the Arab Spring on track, but without the promised US support.

    Jo Cox was elected after I left the European Parliament and my Yorkshire constituency, but we worked on similar issues of democracy and human rights in the world and, like me, she worked for the European Movement. The good that the EU does has been overshadowed by a deliberate and sustained parody which may lead the British people to vote Leave. For their sake, I hope not.

    Yours

    Edward

    Edward McMillan-Scott | Patron European Movement

  3. Thank you for your succinct and heartfelt explanation as to why the UK should have remained. I have been horrified by the leave movement and the shallow xenaphobic platitudes and exhortations that appealed to the many who feel marginalised and unheard in the political landscape.
    I am despairing for all the young who have lost a more hopeful future and are now going to be sucked into their elders fears and resentments of anything different. The wrong people have now been emboldened and who knows how much suffering will be endured before a more compassionate and articulate world view will be reasoned and accepted as valid.

    • The Remain campaign was grounded in a selfish liking for the status-quo and was funded by interests that profit from it, particularly corporations and globalists with wealth enough to swan off to the continent on expensive vacations and who benefit from low-wage workers that clean their homes and watch their children and serve them fabulous meals in chi-chi restaurants. The British people wisely chose to step off the ride transporting them to ever-greater and more remote government doomed to bureaucratic seize-up when it ran out of rooms for meetings where little is accomplished except scheduling the next one.

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