Before I go out to vote in the EU Referendum, I want to get a few things off my chest. This is very off-topic for my blog and I'll understand if you don't want to read any further, but here goes anyway.
I'll get it out there: I've been unhappy with the EU for a long time. I'm a big fan of Europe - I've lived in eastern Europe, my family all live in France, my nephews are French - but the EU itself, as an institution, well, I have deep reservations. And yet, on the day of voting, I still find myself conflicted about which way I'm going to vote.
You see, it all seems to have boiled down to immigration. The least of my personal concerns. And an insular, Britain-centric set of issues about our trade, our economy, our future. I think our decision, especially in light of the way Spain and Greece have been treated recently, and are still suffering, could be based on wider issues than that. Our decision will have an effect on all of Europe. The continent awaits our proclamation.
This, in my view, is the fault of the way the campaigns have been run, and the issues they have chosen to focus on. I don't read newspapers (except sometimes the social care part of The Guardian), I haven't followed or subscribed to any social media accounts on either side, and I've avoided all the TV debates but one, preferring to try to get a neutral view. But there's no getting away from it.
Both sides have been accused of whipping up fear - about immigration on the Leave side, and about Britain's economic future, on the Remain side. Both accusations have merit, I think. But worse than that is the insidious attitude, so common in contemporary politics, that's there's only one, right, moral way to think on this issue, and anybody who thinks differently must have some moral deficiency.
Think I'm exaggerating? Only last night, a Guardian article was circulating on my (overwhelmingly Remain) Twitter feed, with a headline that stated that voting Remain was the "only moral option". The Remain camp are quick to point out the unpleasant and dangerous messages on immigration spewed by Farage et al (and I share Remain's view on that), while believing their campaign to have been wholly upright.
Really. Let's just look at one of the Remain messages that have I have seen tweeted recently.
Voting Leave means voting for Farage, Gove, Johnson. You wouldn't want to be associated with these people would you?
Well, no I probably wouldn't. But then this is not a presidential election. Every time I vote I find I have to compromise - I rarely agree with everything in a particular manifesto. If I'm going to vote I often find I have to choose the candidate who has the least issues I violently disagree with. Others make different compromises, and I respect that. Plus, this meme implies that because these people are 'nasty', voting Leave makes you nasty, like them. As if there are no nasty people voting Remain. People who are only too happy to rage about Cameron under usual circumstances now conveniently ignoring that they're on the same side as him. Whenever one side of a political debate espouses the view that their views mean they are better, nicer people, then I get nervous.
Other Remain campaign slogans have warned me of the terrible consequences of leaving - how we will be all alone, nobody will want to deal with us. The tone from Europe seems to be that they will not look kindly on us. World leaders are queuing up to tell us we'll be global pariahs. If we vote leave, we will suffer for it. Stay in the EU . . . or else! My main concern about the EU is that it is a bit of a bully. This is not helping me to think differently.
And finally, immigration. How can I ignore it when it has been such a divisive and bitter theme of the whole campaign? My own personal view on this is that we are a wealthy country and we can probably afford to do more, especially with regard to refugees. The area where I live is already incredibly diverse, and the recent proliferation of Polish Shops is evidence of increasing diversity. I've lived in eastern Europe, so I quite like buying the pickled peppers for the sake of nostalgia. When I go to the park and many of the other parents there are speaking other languages, I amuse myself by trying to work out if any are speaking Romanian, hoping to find someone I can reminisce with. I don't think our country is 'full'. Immigration is a non-issue for me as far as this referendum goes, although I do think we need a better plan with regards to housing, school places, health care provision etc.
But it doesn't matter what I say, or how liberal I am on this topic because, for some, there is no other reason to vote leave. On the day the referendum date was announced someone tweeted, "Now we'll get to see how xenophobic this country really is." Before a shot was fired in the campaign battle, it was clear that a Leave vote was all about immigration in some people's minds. The other day I saw a tweet that said, "It would be nice to think the Brexiters had a reason other than immigration for voting leave. But. They. Don't." I do, but who cares?
Fair enough, in some ways. Nigel Farage is a Brexiter and it's been clear for years that immigration is his thing. Why would people not make that connection?
But more than that, I am concerned that the response to comments about immigration seems to be to bring out the 'racism' accusation. I'm not trying to say that there are no racists on the leave side - it's quite evident that there are. Probably quite a lot. But it's just too convenient to dismiss so many people's concerns as stemming from their own moral deficiencies as racists. It reminds me of Gordon Brown rushing back into the cocooned safety of his ministerial car when confronted by 'that awful bigot', Gillian Duffy talking about 'all these Eastern Europeans' (which, by the way, took place before we even had a Tory government - so much for immigration concerns being all about austerity). If immigration is the all-encompassing focus of this debate, as so many seem to think, then we need to find a better way of dealing with it than simply calling people racists, and accusing them of being stupid enough to be brainwashed by reading the wrong sort of newspaper. You do not win people over to your way of thinking by calling them bigoted and stupid. Even if they are.
I am worried because immigration and, yes, racism, have been open topics where I live for decades, since long before the referendum, austerity, or this Tory government. My fear is that the end result of this referendum will be disastrous for our country either way; that the divide between those who feel they have the intellectual and moral high ground, and those who feel they have been ignored, mocked and sneered at, will simply be too wide to heal; that the losing side will blame the winning side for everything that goes wrong for years ahead; that those whose views were previously moderate will become more and more extreme.
My region has seen enough racial tension, enough riots, enough Britain First marches, enough social exclusion, enough poverty. The time for debating and campaigning is over. We need to talk.