Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin. “Not Slytherin, eh?” said the small voice. “Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that — no?”
Tomorrow the UK votes on a referendum: do we remain part of the EU or do we leave? Every vote counts equally, and the outcome is very finely-balanced, so every vote is important. I’ve been on a bit of a journey with this issue. At first, although I could see many clear-cut benefits of membership, reservations about the EU’s arcane structure weighed very heavily with me. Later, although the facts and my understanding of them hadn’t changed, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of leaving; the risks of leaving seemed much clearer and more immediate than the risks of staying, and I decided I had to vote to remain. However, I was still ambivalent.
Now all ambivalence has gone. I know why I felt so uncomfortable about the idea of voting to leave. The referendum campaigns have been divisive, and while both campaigns have been negative, the Leave campaign has focused on the issue of immigration. I think immigration (whether from the EU or beyond) benefits the UK, and I think that blaming immigrants for our problems is the opposite of what Britain stands for, or should stand for.
In troubled times such as the recession we’re currently experiencing, it’s easy to prey on people’s fears, to cast outsiders and foreigners as scapegoats and have them take the blame for problems caused by bankers and politicians. We’re very lucky in Britain that our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t fall for this crap in the 1930s, and we shouldn’t be falling for it now.
When Jo Cox MP was murdered, we got a glimpse of where this rhetoric leads, where it can still lead in the 21st Century and in Britain, and for me, that was the moment when the last trace of ambivalence evaporated. My reservations about the voting mechanisms seemed very small and a very, very long way away.
It’s natural that people in every nation are proud of their culture, and perhaps overlook their own shortcomings. I think that generation had reason to be proud, and I grew up with a (perhaps rose-tinted) idea that Britain had done some good in the world. Although that feeling gradually faded, I still felt proud to be British. In 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, I thought the opening ceremony distilled the essence of what we still had: at our best we’re industrious, creative, funny, irreverent, welcoming to newcomers, proud of our diversity and self-confident. If we lose those things, we won’t have much left. It will be a very hollow kind of “independence” if it means closing the borders and polishing our memories of empire.
Maybe this is where I was so wrong at the beginning of the process. I had thought that we could at least contemplate leaving the EU while still being the welcoming, diverse and self-confident country that made me proud. The Leave campaign has convinced me that’s not the possible. Talking to friends from continental Europe I realise that the EU now plays a big part in my rosy image of a outgoing, self-confident country. Although I work with people from all around the world, colleagues from continental Europe, especially, value the ability to live and work in Britain, and they feel hurt Britain might reject them, as they see it. I was taking these friends for granted, and I am sorry.
Tomorrow will be like a grim Sorting Ceremony in Harry Potter, and I am still desperately hoping we will find ourselves in Gryffindor, like the generations before us. The other possibilities are now all too clear.