The long and faltering journey of humanity towards what we call “civilisation” has been going on for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of years. Boiled down to its most basic of elements, that journey amounts to this: a struggle between the higher, loftier ideals to which human beings aspire and our darker, baser instincts. On the “good” side, we might place such attributes as compassion, empathy, love, solidarity and the search for peaceful solutions to our differences. The “bad” stuff would include things such as anger, aggression, prejudice, bigotry, disrespect – even contempt, fear and dislike of the “other”, and so on. In short, I’m speaking of the struggle between the beauty and the beast in humankind.
It’s All Beastly
There’s a good reason the EU referendum “debate” has, so far, been such a disaster and a turn-off for the British public. It’s because it’s nearly all been so beastly. The arguments for and against have almost totally been framed in terms of the split right down the middle of the Tory party. Each side has played its big beasts: Cameron and Osborne for “In” and Johnson and Gove for “Out”.
The Remain camp have, indeed, focussed on “Project Fear”, based almost exclusively on the two things Cameron and Osborne understand: financial self-interest and security. The Leavers have banged on about immigration, stoking that most beastly of human emotions: fear of the Other. The Leavers, too, have also thrown quite a lot of numbers around, most of them outright lies, such as the spurious £350m a week figure – for which they have had the strongest possible rebuke from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority.
And, of course, lurking in the background in the Exit camp, is the figure of Nigel Farage, the embodiment of all the worst and most bestial aspects of human nature. For me, he’s the perfect pantomime villain, the personification of everything I dislike about Britain. (There’s quite a lot about our country I like, too!)
Where’s the Beauty?
Fiona Reynolds, former director general for the National Trust, wrote an impassioned article in last Thursday’s Guardian lamenting the fact that the narrow pursuit of economic growth had crowded out that oh-so-human quest for beauty in our lives. It’s thought-provoking and worth a read.
Those commentators in the EU debate who have tried to emphasise the positive, uplifting aspects of our EU membership have been at the very margins of the debate. Some scientists have explained how much R&D and new scientific discoveries depend on EU funding. A group of musicians and artists praised EU support for enhancing the cross-fertilisation of ideas in the creative industries across Europe. I blinked and might have imagined it, but I think the Erasmus programme, encouraging cultural and education exchange between students in different EU countries, got a mention, too.
It’s ironic that the only (sort of) positive messaging has come from the Brexit camp: namely, the idea that the British, freed from the shackles of Brussels, will re-emerge and blossom in the brave new world. This idea, relying as it does on a significant air-brushing of our imperial history, is so delusional that I worry for the sanity of those who actually believe it.
Only 18 Days to Go
At the time of writing, there are two and a half weeks left to the referendum. Please, please, is there anyone out there of stature who can extol something of the positive, life-affirming aspects of collaborating, working, dancing, singing, learning and laughing together with other people with something new to offer? There’s a positive tale to tell out there somewhere. It’s still not too late to lift the tone.