The EU referendum is on 23 June and the campaign is in full swing. Without doubt this is an important vote. The ‘leave’ camp believe that the uncertainty an exit would engender in the business community and elsewhere will be negligible and short lived. Their case is that returning areas of sovereignty and repatriating cash we give to the EU will help make Britain richer, more secure and more influential. The ‘remain’ camp argue the opposite. To back up their arguments both sides drench the public with a blizzard of data. Economists and business leaders write letters to the broadsheets backing one side or the other. The ‘truth’ is hard to glean. And I believe that is because there is no absolute truth in this debate merely argument.
And I would describe the argument rather differently. I believe the UK has two broad traditions – one atavistic and one progressive. I also believe that the leave camp are firmly making the case for the former while the remain camp have failed thus far to really make the case for the latter. The atavistic case runs something like this. There was a golden age of yore when Britain ruled the world. We gave the world democracy, our language, the rule of law and brought many enlightenment values to bear on parts of the globe shadowed in feudalism and worse. By leaving we can repatriate cash we now give to Europe, reclaim the ability to rule ourselves and strike relationships and deals around the world. We can also pull up the drawbridge, as we had to do during the second world war, and stop uncontrollable economic migration from blighting our cities, towns and villages. This is a vision of Britain in total control of its own destiny as we last were….well…. at the end of the 19th Century. This is why it is an attractive fantasy no more.
On the other hand the progressive view recognises the profound changes to the world order since 1945 and the advent of the Pax Americana. Britain is interdependent on other countries in a way that is growing not lessening. The lessons of the second world war were about that need to reinforce interdependency to secure peace. Trade was a laggard in this respect but globalisation is just a fancy name for the spread of economic power blocs and mass migration. Moreover the progressive view understands the tradition of internationalism that was at the heart of the 18th Century enlightenment, which in turn enabled the industrial revolution and created the very democracy we now revere. Independence today can only be secured through the recognition of the complex web of interdependencies a modern democracy must manage. The EU is a recognition of this fact. Nobody would argue it does not need reform. It does. But that is not a case for turning our backs on something we need to be at the heart of.
So why should FE vote to remain? As educators, who believe that our mission is to prepare our students for the world of work, then voting to leave the EU which could trigger (in Mark Carney’s words) a technical recession and higher unemployment would make our jobs harder. As educators who vow to help people gain meaningful careers, creating a world of fewer jobs does not make sense. Unemployment is never a price worth paying.
Second FE is the most welcoming and diverse of sectors. We understand how well people from every background can work together and create new possibilities. We welcome people and their creative energies from every community in our society and we understand how that enriches all of us. Turning our backs on the rest of Europe would make little sense when we know how innovation is so well sparked by difference and diversity.
Third Further Education Colleges are themselves progressive enlightenment institutions. They have always been about creating chances for those who might otherwise not have a chance. They nurture many of the EU and other migrants who come to these shores and lest we forget EU migrants contribute £2.6 billion net to the Exchequer each year.
So on 23 June I hope that as many people as possible who work in FE vote, and I would urge you to vote remain. It will be disastrous for our democracy if turnout is low and it will create many years of uncertainty (at best) if we vote to leave the EU. This referendum is ultimately a choice to remain engaged rather than disengaged; to cede some sovereignty in order to gain greater security and stability, and to embrace diversity over monoculturalism. Progress has never been made without discomfort or trade-offs between competing self interests. At the least the European Union provides a mechanism to do this safely.
Nick is Chief Executive of Corporate Agenda and independent advice consultancy