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22 May 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 4:45pm

How should you vote in the EU referendum? A guide for the undecided

The more you look into it, the more unappealing both sides seem.

By Phil Hartup

The argument over Britain leaving the EU is one in which I am genuinely torn. All I know for sure is that I should vote. Everybody should vote for everything they can in a democracy, it’s how the people making the decisions know you’re paying attention. Besides, the EU referendum is one of the few times in history where the inhabitants of these islands have been able to articulate their opinions on their place within Europe via a ballot box instead of bombs, bayonets or bows, so it seems remiss not to give it a go. Deciding which side to vote for is the tricky bit, so I’ve laid out some pros and cons for each side.

Pro: David Cameron says we should stay in the EU and that sounds like a ringing endorsement of the Brexit cause. His track record for being wrong about almost everything is beyond reproach. Plus Britain voting in favour of Brexit might compel him to resign. So whatever else happens, giving Davey Pie a shove toward the exit of No 10 can’t be bad.

Con: Ditching Cameron over Brexit gives us Boris Johnson as surely as night follows day so voting for Brexit to depose Cameron would simply serve to replace one ultra-privileged Etonian with another (arguably a worse one). By contrast, defeating the Brexit vote might make Boris look like an idiot on a zip-line, in a metaphorical sense for a change. Still get Cameron but maybe his successor is, less, err, oh God look at the state of them.

Pro: George Osborne is also pro-EU, for economic reasons. Osborne’s catastrophic record when it comes to economics and his wider crimes against maths in general have got to mean that his claims that the EU is good for the country are accompanied by the ringing of alarm bells.

Con: Which is more likely; that George Osborne spent a long night wading through masses of data, doing complicated sums and finally came to his own conclusion, or that he’s going with what he’s been told to say? If it is the former, of course that would be grounds to leave the EU and hide the country under a camouflage net for a decade. However, it is more likely he’s just passing on a message from somebody more competent.

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Pro: Competent how? There’s been a lot of talk about Britain’s prosperity, Britain’s trade links and British business. People have said that if Britain leaves the EU our prosperity would be in danger. Obama’s pro-EU pitch sounded like he was about to start charging us protection money, “Nice economy, shame if something were to happen to it”. Now maybe it’s true that what prosperity we have as a country would be in jeopardy, but personally I don’t feel particularly prosperous. The hundreds of thousands of people depending on food banks don’t seem to be very prosperous. The people on zero-hours contracts, paying exorbitant rents, getting deeper into debt week by week, they don’t seem too prosperous either. So when we’re talking about protecting British prosperity, don’t we really mean the current economic status quo? And why on Earth would we want to do that?

Con: But if we exit and tip over the established economic applecart, we could be looking at another depression, or at least a different one than whatever happens when the property bubbles burst. Plus the workforce will risk losing all sorts of protections that came in with the EU. Working conditions could deteriorate, justified under the basis of reviving the economy.

Pro: This is something that the British people would have to rectify for themselves. Surely there comes a point, not just on working conditions but on broader issues like human rights as well, where British citizens have to take responsibility for themselves rather than deferring to Brussels to protect us from the cruelty of the governments we elect, or by omission of action keep allowing to be elected. We should not be looking to Europe to protect us from the horrible consequences of our own elections.

Con: Having the EU there as a kind of super-ego to the id of the British government does seem to benefit the UK though. While most people I suspect don’t know the ins and outs of EU law and how the European Court of Human Rights works, there is a sense that people tolerate it and respect the necessity of it, however grudgingly. If we leave the EU, there’s no guarantee that this kind of institution would be set up independently. Even if it was there would be less protection for it. In some ways it feels like the EU is encouraging Britain to be better.

Pro: So if the EU is so nice, what was going on in Greece? Can we presume any sort of noble intentions from an institution that failed to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the Greek debt crisis? And what can we take from the lack of a unified and humane policy to the current refugee problems? The EU response to recent events has been feeble to the point of callousness.

Con: Clearly the EU is not all it’s cracked up to be, but we can clearly see that an EU exit is not going to make the UK a more welcoming and friendly place. Nobody is under the illusion that leaving the EU would cause the UK to become the friend of the downtrodden and a force for good in the world. The rhetoric of the main Brexit campaigns has been isolationist and parochial and it hasn’t pretended otherwise. Voting in favour of a British exit from the EU would also validate some of the worst rhetoric from the Brexit campaign, such as Boris Johnson’s racist ramble against Barack Obama. It’s not even like the Brexiteers have been smeared in any way either, they’re on message and it’s a message of their choosing. Further emboldening people who hold such views can’t be smart. Voting to stay in the EU sends a message that we don’t see the solution to Britain’s problems in isolationism and xenophobia.

Pro: If we don’t vote to get out now, when do we next get to vote for something that might change the system? The referendum on electoral reform failed, Scottish Independence fell short at the final hurdle and this could be the last chance to make a radical change to how the UK is run, rather than simply who is running it, for a long time. Plus maybe Farage won’t be on the TV all the time.

Con: Sounds great, taking a democratic leap of faith and hoping for the best. Very brave. But it’s not our arse on the line if it all goes horribly wrong is it. One way or the other the Brexit vote probably won’t affect us at all, since we don’t rely on any threatened systems. Not to mention can you imagine how smug Farage would be? There he’d be, Nigel Farage in a pub, braying over his pint with his gormless mates in all the history books until the end of time. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

And so, I remain undecided. The campaign to remain, with its messages of fear and foreboding, the campaign to leave with its petty prejudices and nationalism – neither of them speak to me. I resent being asked to vote out of fear as much as I resent being asked to vote out of xenophobia. If only there was some way they could both lose.

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