As I write this, President Obama is visiting the UK. It's rather a breath of fresh air to hear from a statesman with a rational, forward-thinking view of the world. Our own politicians here in Britain are generally a shifty, substandard, and intellectually dishonest lot. But then, even the USA has people like Trump.
Mr Obama has not been reticent about the forthcoming referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union - to the dudgeon of many in the Brexit camp. "He's belittling Britain!" blustered one. What was I just saying about intellectual dishonesty? If I advise you not to jump off a roof, am I belittling your claim to be able to fly? Other Brexit politicians have not hestitated to plunge deep into the sewers of populist rhetoric in an attempt, not to counter Mr Obama's points, but to attack his credibility.
The response has generally underscored the fact that this is a referendum between optimism and education on the one hand, xenophobia and ignorance on the other. It is again a war between the future and the past. Poland recently lost that war. If it spreads, the lights will be going out across Europe. But leaving aside the debate itself, what about Mr Obama's intervention? Many have been saying he has no right to interfere in the domestic affairs of another country. I am tempted to reply, "Wake up, you children." But, despite the provocation, I've come out in support of rationalism so let's just reason it through.
First, the decision whether to quit or remain in the EU is not political (or anyway shouldn't be), it is a matter of operational strategy that is subject to analysis. To make an informed decision, we need that analysis to include how other countries would be likely to deal with the UK in future. When US treasury secretaries offer an opinion, we ought to welcome that - and, if we disagree, counter it with facts and arguments, not blatant propaganda in which a forecast is interpreted as a "threat".
Secondly, the question is not a domestic one. If Britain were to leave the EU, the effects would be catastrophic for Britain, pretty dire for the rest of Europe, and somewhat damaging even to the USA. (I think we can safely say that Putin and Daesh would be over the moon, though.) It is perfectly fair for other countries to express an opinion on something that directly affects them. As I'm sure the Brexiters will be barking in fury at that assertion, let me give you another example. A couple of years ago, Scotland held a referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. The outcome affected the English, Welsh and Northern Irish just as much as the Scots. They didn't get a vote, but that didn't mean they weren't entitled to express an opinion. Mr Obama commenting on the EU referendum is no different from UK-wide comments on the Scots referendum.
But here's a wider question: why are the Brexiters so stridently opposed to the mounting body of evidence and advice in favour of remaining in the EU? Because what lies behind most of the Brexit movement is a conspiracy theory. Rather than recognizing the EU as one of the safest, freest, fairest and most prosperous unions in all of history, they harbour a sullen fear of it as some kind of evil empire. Rather than acknowledging the massive benefits of membership, they want to burn it all down. They claim to think Britain great, but instead of advocating reform via the first-among-equals status that Britain could enjoy as the leading international player at the EU table, they want to go it alone. "We managed just fine on our own fifty years ago," they claim. Well, sorry, but no we didn't. And the world is a very different place now.
It's ironic that the Brexit camp characterize any attempt to point out the disastrous consequences of leaving the EU as "Project Fear" since it is fear that is their own core motivation. As with all conspiracy theorists, the enemy is truth. Personally I want Britain to remain in the EU not because leaving would be an act of economic self-sabotage (though it would) but because in remaining we can engage and be part of building a better world. We can be the Federation or we can be the Klingons. The light is winning. We must not give up now.
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