This must be a wonderful time for psephologists and political commentators, but for many people it is just plain confusing. We are being asked to make major decisions on our children’s and grandchildren’s future yet nobody seems able to tell us the implications of what we may decide. Does the UK remain in the European Union, does Scotland remain in the United Kingdom? The responsibility is huge; a wrong decision on either could condemn our successors to war and famine, or promise unseen prosperity, or just more of the same. How do we make up our minds? Well, I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but here are some ideas that helped me to decide for myself.
First, do not be influenced by the 'personalities' who appear decided that a vote one way would be a disaster and the other way a new utopia. They cannot possibly know and are clearly motivated by factors other than interest in our well-being. This category includes many politicians, especially those plump millionaires on both sides of the Conservative Party whose interest seems to be increased personal power. It also includes most business people whose driving motive is the future prosperity of their business. A number of people have expressed the view to me that they would not wish to be associated with either side in view of the people promoting its case. Fair enough, but remember it is not about these people, it is about the future.
Second, think about the current threats to our society and how we should be best placed to meet them. If you have read my articles before you will be familiar with them: the four horsemen, warfare, injustice, pestilence and death, in their modern variations as terrorism, maldistribution of wealth, epidemics and climate change, all contributing to mass migration, all international problems. Which option would fit us better to combat these? Should we be Little Englanders or Scotlanders, like Donald Trump, East Berlin, or the Emperors Qin Shi Huang and Hadrian building walls, or should we continue in imperfect alliances?
Third, remember that all governments change and can be changed by us. We are not condemned forever to have a Conservative government and an unelected House of Lords in London, a unicameral SNP one here, and a strangely semi-democratic combination in Brussels. All have clear imperfections and, as we are, we can change them. We must however be very careful to avoid any change that might threaten to silence our voices.
Fourth, think for a moment about divorce. Divorce is usually traumatic, psychologically and financially, and the parties involved and their children usually suffer for a long time. Bitterness and a desire for revenge sometimes play a part. Only lawyers benefit. Even if fair agreements are signed, bitterness often remains. If the UK leaves the EU or Scotland the UK, does it seem likely that the larger party will look favourably on the smaller when it comes to economic interests? Again, I predict money will flow into the pockets of lawyers and technical advisors.
I was first asked why Britain was not joining the proposed Common Market (there was then only a Coal and Steel Community) in France in 1954, just after taking my O grades. My questioner, a man who had fought in the maquis during the resistance, dismissed my rather feeble expression of support for the Commonwealth and its butter, and pointed out the need for Europe to unite after half a century of war. Later, after de Gaulle had said 'Non!' to Macmillan then Heath had negotiated entry, I found myself in Luxembourg negotiating grants for the UK from the Coal and Steel Community, and began to understand a bit about how Europe worked for the greater good. In particular, I saw the emphasis on the rights of workers and prevention of disease that came from Europe and moved us all towards a level playing field for commerce, reducing exploitation by the unscrupulous.
As chairman of a UK committee on air pollution, I later saw the protective standards that we recommended to our government taken by our civil servants to Europe and become European standards. I have seen first-hand the influence we have had in Europe. But I have also seen undesirable developments more recently, most especially the ill-thought-out Working Time Directive that has wrecked the training of junior doctors and the takeover of London and Brussels by neo-liberal economics and attempts to pass undemocratic agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that may end the NHS as a viable means of providing healthcare.
Nevertheless, as someone involved in scientific research who had held European grants, I have been fortunate both to see and benefit from the collaborations with European colleagues and students that the union has brought. For me, the answer is clear: I shall vote to stay, as I believe these alliances bring many more advantages than disadvantages to small countries in this troubled world. If I am in the minority, I doubt I shall live long enough to see exit negotiated but I would worry for my children and their children. So, if it is in or out, I’m in, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try to shake it all about, and that applies to the UK too if we stay in that.