Brexit or Remain? I'm torn between the two - and the future's a risk either way
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
It was the feminist movement that coined the phrase "the personal is political", and when it comes to the looming Brexit vote in just over two weeks' time, the personal will indeed be political as I enter that voting booth (where I have a vote, in deepest Kent).
I am acutely aware that it is in Ireland's interest that the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. All the top economic specialists have said so, and anyone involved with cross-border relations with Northern Ireland has voiced their concerns about reimposing border controls.
I certainly feel the pull of loyalty towards Ireland's interest, and for such a reason I should place my 'X' in the box marked 'Remain'.
But then there is another loyalty which pulls me the other way: family loyalty. Both my sons are ardent Brexiteers, and passionately believe that it is in Britain's interest - and perhaps, in the long term, in everyone's interest - that we should all vote 'Leave'. My elder son has even put a 'Vote Leave' banner on the window-pane.
These Brexiteer arguments are, contrary to what I read and hear so much in the media, not from a 'Little Englander' point of view (although this is a misunderstood phrase: the 'Little Englanders' of the 1900s were anti-Imperialists, such as GK Chesterton, and were against British colonialism).
My sons are, I would say, internationalist and indeed European in their outlook - speaking French and Italian, some German, even some Catalan - and embracing the culture and history of continental Europe. We all adore France, worship Italy and see Germany as an awesome source of music and philosophy.
But, they argue, Britain cannot keep building a city the size of Cardiff every year to accommodate the sheer number of migrants who arrive on these shores: that is, more than 300,000 people who move to the UK annually. The NHS may benefit from migrants, but it is also struggling: half the maternity units last year had to close their doors to women in the throes of labour because they couldn't cope.
Schools are under enormous pressure. The conflicts between parents to get their children into local schools - sometimes any schools - can get incredibly fierce. House prices are reflecting the pressure of population growth that can be ascribed to immigration.
It's not the people themselves. They're nearly always terrifically nice. Visit the Polish and Latvian and Italian cafés in Dover, and see how much they've lightened the dinginess of this ancient port. It's not the individuals: it's the numbers. And the numbers are directly linked to the European Union's failure to generate prosperity across the board.
There's "50pc youth unemployment in Greece, 49pc in Italy, 40pc in France", is what I hear. In direct consequence of Europe's blatant failures, there's a huge 'pull factor' to attract migrants to Britain. And because of free movement, which is a central tenet of the EU, everyone from the 27 other countries has the right to come.
The imbalance in economic criteria is relevant. If the average wage in Bulgaria is £1 an hour, and the minimum wage in Britain is now £9.50 an hour, why wouldn't you migrate from east central Europe to Boston, Lincolnshire (which now has the highest percentage of European migrants of any location in the UK)? But the GPs in Boston, including doctors who are themselves immigrants, say they just cannot cope with the pressures.
And then, migrants from countries with a lower standard of living usually do depress wages - though it's not their fault. I hear it said that it's "the toffs" who want to keep within the EU, because it suits the boss class: the working class are drifting to Ukip because of lower wages and higher housing costs.
We have been here before. Friedrich Engels argued fiercely against allowing Irish immigrants free entry to the British labour market in the 1840s, because what an English worker would do for a penny, the Irishman would do for a halfpenny. His tone was awfully hostile, but you could see the point he was making.
From personal experience, I've always been in favour of the free movement of peoples. I remember the time, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was hugely difficult for an Irish person to get a job in France, without a special 'permis de travail'. Living as a student in France, you had to present yourself at police headquarters every six months, where a gendarme might ask, using the familiar form of address which could signify contempt, "Tes papiers, alors!"
How wonderful it is that young Irish - and British - people can live and work anywhere within the 28 members of the EU without being questioned by the authorities for their "papers".
And yet, the 28: that's another problem I'm lobbied about. Gisela Stuart, the very sensible Labour MP for Birmingham, and herself born in Germany, says of the EU: "It worked very well with six: it worked pretty well with 12 and even 15. But 28 countries? It's too many."
Even leaving aside the question of Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania being in line to join the EU. Oh Lord - the Balkans! That power-keg of the European south!
Again, quirkily, I absolutely loved Albania; even under the worst excesses of Enver Hoxha's communism, I thought the people were sweet and the landscape Virgilian. But how many Cardiffs would need to be constructed to accommodate the many poor old Albanians?
And what about Ireland? My sons love Ireland too, but they believe that Ireland is robust enough to survive, and that it could even be a magnet for investment after a Brexit. (And all those "bastard bankers" like the JP Morgans who threaten they'll pull out of the City of London may bring their, ahem, gifts to Dublin's banking sector!)
As for the Border - isn't this the best case ever for a United Ireland?
Two and a half weeks away and I'm still struggling with my conscience and my loyalties. There is a third way - which is to abstain. John Bruton, whom I respect, has pointed out that this would be shirking my duty, and cowardly.
It is some consolation that I meet many people - particularly Irish people - who are in the same boat. They hear the arguments on both sides. They're worried about jobs, housing, strains on schools and hospitals. They don't want to put the future of Ireland - or Britain - at risk: but isn't the future always a risk anyway?
The personal and the political have seldom represented a more troubled, and historic, decision.