Mark Argent
Creativity design composition spirituality work with organisations

Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
Referendum or election

29 February 2016, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

Just over a week ago, on the Saturday, we had the news that it’s on 23 June. The following Sunday’s papers seemed to say that “it” is a Tory leadership challenge: depending on the paper, Cameron was “declaring war on the rebels”, others painted it as Gove versus Cameron, and then Boris Johnson joined the fray.

The problem with referenda is the danger of people voting on a question other than the one on the ballot paper, but this seemed particularly extreme. It left a sense of the referendum being primarily about the internal mechanics of the Conservative party.

Also on that Saturday, I heard Graham Watson say that the referendum is not in the bag, and we might be on the verge of a Brexit which would be “the biggest foreign policy blunder since George III lost America over tea”. He has a point.

Putting the positive case for EU membership suddenly seemed difficult. It is hard to produce arguments based on reality when reality is being ignored. It suddenly seemed wise to focus the LibDem campaign on getting out our supporters and leave the undecided voters to StrongerIn.

To complete the tale of doom, I have yet to hear any anti-EU arguments that hold water, so it feels as if people are responding to something which is hard to handle with the easier task of attacking leadership. The term “anarchy” seems spot on — a chaotic attack on the possibility of authority, whether that is in Brussels or Downing St. It feels more like a primitive flight from reality — perhaps I should call it a fight/flight response.

My Lib Dem instincts want to assert themselves in saying lots of eminently sensible things about the value of being part of the EU. But I fear that won’t be heard.

At a Cambridge Lib Dem event recently we were invited to say something about why the EU matters. As I spoke, something hit a nerve. I thought of my great uncle talking of a friendship with a German boy which grew out of a school exchange in the 1930s. I thought of a close friend who is half French and half Austrian and was born in the UK. I thought of wise Eurocrats I have known. I had more than half an ear on the rich musical heritage of Europe. I celebrated the struggle and the complexity of the rich tapestry of European history.

My instinctive reaction is to hide and brace myself for the worst — both a “no” vote and what it would lead to. Perhaps I need to take the courageous path of recognising the fear that the eruption over the last week has surfaced in me, and choose to engage emotions rather than hide in my capacity for logic.

But whether we are reeling after an electoral bruising last May, or recoiling in horror at the last week’s headlines, another sentence that draws strong reaction from me is the start of the preamble to our constitution:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Right now it feels as if the Europe debate desperately needs the heart that can hold that sentiment and the courage to give it voice.