The British have never relished the referendum. Plebiscitary democracy does not fit very well into the tradition of parliamentary sovereignty that is still so dear to us. This issue, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky examines the ways in which the Government has tried to bend the rules. But it is hard to see how the decision that the electorate of these islands will make this month could be posed in any other way. There have been many twists and turns, but no doubt about the direction of travel, on the journey during which the European Union has morphed from what was primarily a customs union or “Common Market”, via a confederal Europe des patries, to the federal Europe that is now emerging from the crises over the euro and migration. We could only address the doubts, scepticism and indignation that have arisen en route by asking the passengers whether they wished to get off. The timing may not be ideal, but the hour was late and the destination no longer distant. The term “historic” is often invoked by politicians, only to be later revoked by historians; but June 23, 2016 may indeed prove to be a date to commemorate, whichever way the vote goes.
Standpoint would not tell its readers how to vote, even if charity law did not prevent us from doing so. Editorial imperatives are superfluous here; if the gentlemen in Whitehall do not really know best, why should the chap in Manchester Square? Yet readers do want to be informed about the facts and exposed to the arguments in their sharpest form. So this month we have assembled writers from both camps who combine intellectual excellence, practical experience and moral integrity. Next month we shall also delay publication until after the result. Subscribers should not expect to see the July/August double issue until the week beginning July 3.
The consequences of Brexit have been exaggerated or downplayed by both sides — though not by Oliver Letwin and Michael Gove in this month’s issue. They would certainly be profound, however: not only by the quantifiable measures discussed by Tim Congdon or Oliver Wiseman, but also in more intangible terms. The historian David Abulafia looks back; the demographer David Coleman peers into an alarming future. Caroline Potter’s Critique essay on Ferdinand Mount’s English Voices demonstrates eloquently that this country has something more precious than a mission, a dream, or a manifest destiny: we have a history.
Beyond Europe’s borders, storm clouds are gathering; what Brexit would mean for the survival of the West is a fair question — though one not always fairly answered. During the past few weeks, the sight of the British establishment in full cry has been awe-inspiring, but its near-unanimity does not guarantee that its motives are disinterested. Still less can this be said of the American establishment, many of whose grey eminences have been wheeled out to reinforce apprehensions about the impact of Brexit, but whose primary concern remains primarily the protection of US interests.
The great and the good on both sides of the Atlantic constantly urge the British to seek their salvation within the world’s largest economic bloc. But this “bloc” is a Cold War term for an even older idea: the idea of empire. No sooner have Europeans supposedly severed their last links with their former colonies than Europe itself prepares to complete its metamorphosis from loose confederacy to imperial bloc. In his tract Britain’s Europe Brendan Simms reassures us that the EU is not the enemy of the UK: “It should be best understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire, hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help.” But the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (to give it its full title) was, despite Voltaire’s bon mot, very much an empire — which is why it was dissolved after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806, when Napoleon forced the Emperor Francis to abdicate, in order to make way for his own continental empire.
Today’s European Union may indeed need help, but German domination — the prevention of which was its original raison d’être — makes the system very difficult for others to reform. A good example was David Cameron’s renegotiation. His Cabinet colleague at the time, Iain Duncan Smith, insists that the Prime Minister had intended to include an “emergency brake” on EU migration in his wish list in 2014: “Keeping the Germans on side was the only thing that really mattered. There was a spare chair for them — called the German chair.” At the last minute, Angela Merkel vetoed the demand, which was watered down to a paltry restriction of tax credits. If all member states had been given an emergency brake on migration, the ugliest scenes of the past year might have been avoided. So would the political meltdown of some countries, such as Austria, which at the time of writing looks certain to fall under the control of the far-Right for the first time since 1945. Even Germany itself has suffered humiliation by, of all people, the Turks. The ersatz Ottoman empire of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is another blast from the past — but it has an Islamist ideology that is all too typical of the 21st century and the Turkish president is determined to shield himself from criticism at home and abroad. His bullying has paid off, but that is no surprise: Europe has also appeased Russia, China and Iran.
What can Britain do about an EU in imminent danger of disintegration, yet stubbornly resistant to reform? Mrs Merkel may brand the referendum “a completely unnecessary risk”, but this month we shall have our say. Just 65 per cent of Britons turned out in 1975. This month it would be a dereliction of duty not to vote.