The scare tactics of the EU referendum campaign have left me curiously unmoved. Those who insist it will be “apocalypse now” if we dare vote against the idea of being ruled from Brussels have deployed such mathematical gymnastics as make their arguments barely worth listening to.
George Osborne takes the prize for bare-faced cheek by manufacturing a £4,300 annual cost for every householder. All sensible forecasters say that even if you accept the premise of his argument, the cost would be nearer £1,500 a year.
But the Leave campaign is little better, warning of ludicrously inflated costs of membership of the European Union – as if we receive absolutely nothing back, which even the most Eurosceptic among us will know is hooey.
In concentrating on the lurid price tag of “in” or “out”, both sides fail to address any of the points I want addressing. As they predicate every scare and every benefit on how much it will cost me, personally, to stay or leave, I become less and less engaged.
All right, I know money is a big part of it. If our reputation as one of the world’s biggest financial centres implodes the day after we leave the EU then won’t we all look chumps?
There again, if we leave and our economy booms, if exports get kickstarted by a fall in the pound, if we emerge as a Singapore style super-charged economy free from EU rules and regulations, then won’t we start pretending we never doubted ourselves?
If the average family ends up better off as a result of leaving, then Osborne will look a pillock, surely. On the other hand, if every family in Britain does end up lumbered with a £1,500 a year bill as the price of our freedom, then won’t we all kick ourselves?
Well, actually, hang on a minute, because if you’re asking me that last question – the doomsday scenario – then I would have to say no, I won’t kick myself if I get a £1,500 a year bill for the price of my freedom, or even a £4,300 bill.
I’m not saying I’ve got that kind of money to spare – far from it. Those remote politicians arguing for our continued membership, like Barack Obama, might not have noticed, but Britain has been going through a decline anyway which has left many traditional industries on the floor. The cost of living is already sky high. Millions of people who have not struggled before are struggling.
But if you ask me do I want £1,500 a year more in my pocket or do I want freedom then I find the answer quite easy, actually. What the Establishment find hard to comprehend about this EU referendum vote is that it is a head and a heart decision. The financials only address part of our concerns.
If we take money out of the equation then what are we left with? We Brits are experiencing emotions about this decision. Our national pride has been awakened. And emotions like pride are not always logical.
Grand themes are being discussed. People in pubs and on the terraces, as Alastair Campbell would say, are not only bandying about figures, they are arguing about ideas. They are debating liberty. They are discussing whether they want to be ruled by remote bureaucrats sitting in vast grey buildings far from their home.
They are discussing whether they want to have their futures decided by people they will never get to hold accountable or vote in or out. They are voicing, as well as pride, anger. They are pondering the meaning of “country” when their country effectively has no borders. They are philosophising about national identity when their nation cannot retain more than the merest hint of its original flavour as it merges with a dazzling array of other cultures.
John Lennon saw it all: “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do.” And indeed, it isn’t hard nowadays. But not everyone in Britain thinks like a hippy, lovely though that may be. And not everyone wants to do away with the idea of nationhood, a group of people united by a common language, culture and economic life.
I’m not saying “one world” is not a laudable objective, but it is a valid choice to say no to it too. And the politicians should be honest with us that that is what we will be voting for on June 23.
As such, there is a moral (or at least philosophical) dimension to whether we should leave or remain. The choice is to retain our Britishness, our borders, our separateness from the world as an island nation, and perhaps our moral imperative, if that exists, to look after our own, versus an obligation in this troubling world to abandon our borders and our island mentality and sign up to whatever integration our masters in the EU think best in the name of peace and prosperity for all – if you believe that is possible.
Also, to wax slightly less lyrical, are we prepared to go to the wall to stop a bureaucrat in Brussels telling a fruit and veg salesman on a market stall in east London how he must label his bananas? Or are we prepared to stomach that, and a million other impositions like it, in the name of European integration?
In a nutshell: if you take money out of the equation, what is the right thing to do? All I know is that freedom and security, the idea of a choice between looking after your own and looking after the world, are all highly emotive subjects. That is why arguing about money, a thousand pounds this way or that, really doesn’t cut it.
The hard-headed thing to do may be to take out a calculator and add up the costs of “in” or “out”. But I like to think that when it comes to it, the heart of most Britons will overrule their head.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author