The EU is an ideal worth fighting for

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The European Union, or the EU as it’s known in the common vernacular, is a long way from perfect. Only a few weeks ago, I was genuinely unsure of which way I would vote in the coming referendum. It’s become easy to view the EU as an unaccountable morass of bureaucrats and excessive regulations, controlling our taxes, our borders, and our currency without very much oversight. As a body, it’s in desperate need of democratisation, and the recent treatment of Greece has highlighted that the EU is all too eager to intervene in domestic economies.

It’s understandable, therefore, why so many people from across the political spectrum are fed up with the EU – I have numerous concerns about its structure and practices. But despite all this, and more, I’ve already sent off my postal vote to remain. It’s not a decision I took lightly, but it has become my thorough conviction that the EU is an ideal worth fighting for.

My vote has little to do with the scare tactics and statistical gibberish that has been thrown at us by both sides in the referendum campaign, a period which has been bombarded with a series of huge and altogether meaningless figures; if we left the EU, Britain could apparently be better off by £350 million a week, although every household would allegedly lose out on £4,300 a year. Likewise, we would have more money for the NHS, or less, and wages could either fall or shoot up.

If the economic consensus is anything to go by, there would of course be a detrimental short term effect; it’s likely that we would suffer a fresh recession, a fall in the value of sterling, and a hit to house prices. Whatever the reality, however, this isn’t a debate that is going to be won on economics. Not only have people increasingly lost faith in economic authority and the status quo throughout the last decade, but there are issues of sovereignty and national identity at play which are, arguably, more essential to the long term future of this country. Indeed, for many, including myself, the neo-liberal economic program propagated by the EU is enough reason to consider a vote to leave. Although an exit may involve a rude awakening, I don’t believe that the UK would be unable to survive outside of the EU; a little reduced in stature, perhaps, but an independent Britain would not be a calamitous outcome.

So what is it about the EU that has me clinging on by my fingernails? Fundamentally, it represents a framework for international cooperation. Whether it’s climate change, security, trade, or the maintenance of peace, the EU provides a structure within which we can work together toward a common goal, and that has to be a good thing. Progress is rarely achieved through nationalism and a retreat into ourselves, and that’s why we should be fighting for an internationalist, democratic Europe.

The EU also provides an essential break on the powers of national governments. There was once a time when much of Europe was in the thrall of various dictatorial regimes, not least the Eastern bloc under the Soviet Union. Today the EU provides its member states with a number of guarantees on civil liberties, including democracy, workers’ rights, freedom of speech, a free press, and the right to a fair trial. I, for one, have more faith in the EU to uphold these values than I do our current Conservative government , and such protections have become more important than ever with rise of a hard-right, nationalist clique across European politics. To abandon the EU would be to abandon our dedication to these binding principles.

Nevertheless, it really isn’t a surprise that the ongoing debate in this country has failed to inspire the masses – much of the remain campaign has focussed on the economic risks of leaving Europe, while the trump card of the opposition is taking back control of our immigration policy. Both of these arguments ignore the tremendous good that the EU does in ensuring social and political security for its members. If the remain side wishes to win this debate, they must make a positive argument for the EU, not only as an economically beneficial arrangement, but as an internationalist principle. If you can’t convince voters to believe in a united Europe, then none of the economic fearmongering in the world is going to convince them to stay.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that much of Britain’s heightened status derives from our membership of the EU. Our position within the world’s largest trading block not only makes us an attractive prospect for foreign investment, but a magnet for many of the world’s most skilled workers and professionals. Leaving the EU would not only stunt our political leverage on the world stage, but harm our continued growth at home. Perhaps EU regulation may feel somewhat stringent at times, but it has undeniably brought great fortune.

For all its achievements, few would argue that the EU is ideal in its current form. Much more needs to be done to make people feel like their representatives in Brussels are listening to them, particularly on the controversial policy of free movement. However, the globalised reality of today’s world is not something to be ignored, nor shied away from. As European nations become more interdependent, we must fight for a continent that goes forward in a spirit of friendship and solidarity, not splintering into any number of nativist shells. The British have often led the world in the battle for democracy and civil rights – it remains our duty to stay and fight for the traditions that we hold dear. Otherwise we run the risk of rapidly making ourselves an irrelevance, feeding only on the scraps that fall from the big table.

Pomp and Circumstance: The Question of the English Anthem

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Five flags, four anthems.

Recently there’s growing interest in the concept of an exclusively English national anthem. This campaign has been fermenting for a while, growing from the continued discrepancy of English teams singing the British anthem, God Save the Queen, at sporting events, while all other constituents of the Union have adopted their own song. While I don’t usually have much time for this sort of shallow nationalism (it seems like a bigger discrepancy to me that the United Kingdom still insists on fielding several separate teams), proponents of the change have been making some progress of late; Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, has put forward an “English National Anthem Bill” to the House of Commons, and he’s had considerable support from both colleagues and the wider public. So if England is to have its own anthem, what should it be?

The consensus in many quarters seems to be Jerusalem; a nineteenth century poem by William Blake with music added by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. It’s already used by the English Rugby and Cricket teams, while campaign groups “England in my Heart” and “Anthem 4 England” (bear with me) have suggested this song as the most popular choice in polls. Now I’m going to go against the grain here, but I think Jerusalem is absolutely dreadful.

I’ll admit it’s not a song I have much affinity with; I was forced to sing it at Annual Labour Conference last year, spending most of the time mumbling and looking for a spare lyrics sheet. It’s dreary little tune, with zero relevance to modern life or what it actually means to be English. Let’s just take a look at the lyrics, with a few annotations of my own:

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green: No.

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On England’s pleasant pastures seen! No.

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills? No.

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills? No.

See what I mean? It suffers from much the same problems as God Save the Queen (a debate for another day). It’s full of uncomfortably Christian overtones and its imagery conjures an archaic version of England than never really existed, much less remains relevant today. And I understand it’s supposed to be a metaphor, but it would be quite absurd for our national anthem to be the name of a disputed city in the Middle East.

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Jerusalem, Palestine/Israel. A quintessentially English landscape.

So if not Jerusalem, what else? A few other songs have been suggested; Land of Hope and Glory, or My Country, I Vow to Thee, for example, but none of these are ideal, if you’re really honest with yourself. They’re all just a bit dull, and when the world cup rolls around we’d still be a joke compared to the French, who, despite everything else, have an anthem that really grabs you by the balls.

Furthermore, when considering the rich cultural history of twentieth century England, it seems foolish sticking to songs that are a hundred years old or more. England has changed beyond recognition since the days of “Dark Satanic Mills”, so perhaps it’s time we had an anthem to reflect that. Toby Perkins has even suggested that an “X-Factor style” competition could be held to elect an original composition, which sounds like a great idea until you remember what The X-Factor is actually like. Of course, Black Magic by Little Mix probably resonates more deeply with the youth of today that Jerusalem ever could, so maybe he is onto something there.

Although a lot of time and effort has been and will be spent in the campaign to make an English anthem a reality, we have to bear in mind that it’s unlikely to have much of an impact beyond the first two minutes of the odd football game. Perhaps it’d be for the best if we just went for The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and called the whole thing quits. If there’s a song that better represents seventy years of managed decline, I’d like to hear it.