When I was seventeen I felt that things were spiralling out of control. The world was big and I was young and insecure and there was too much suffering and too many problems. I’d always found schoolwork easy, but these problems were something else. I couldn’t even understand them, let alone solve them. In my panic and distress I searched for a solution. I found one in the pages of Cosmopolitan and Elle. The solution was to stop eating. For a while it worked. My strict (if random) policies concerning what could and couldn’t come in and out of my body (pickled beetroot yes, bananas no) stopped time in its tracks. Instead of growing up I went backwards, towards the golden age of childhood where things were black and white and I was small and infertile and my parents were benign dictators rather than ordinary humans with more than their fair share of difficulties. I didn’t have to go out. I didn’t have to meet new people. I didn’t have to grow up. So long as I could control my borders I could stay safe. The world couldn’t reject me if I rejected it first.
Anorexia nearly killed me. The ensuing decade of bulimia nearly broke me. In the end I (almost) recovered. Physically I’m strong and healthy. Psychologically I’m scarred. Ultimately it was pointless. I still had to grow up. I still had to be the shape I am. I still had to risk rejection and live among other people and face up to suffering and engage in politics and fail and fail again and be subject to the uncontrollable tides of time and fate and life.
I was searching for a way to understand the desire for Brexit when I remembered my experience of anorexia. I remembered the searing anxiety that was the result of a perceived loss of control. It was my identity that was slipping. My sense of who I thought I was and how I fitted into the world. I remembered how I was prepared to kill myself rather than surrender to things I didn’t understand. I remembered how afraid I was of myself and of other people and of change.
Cosmopolitan and Elle were in the right place at a dark time, playing to my deepest fears and insecurities, promising that if I followed their diets and wore their clothes and stuck to their rules about how to conduct my relationships then I would be happy. What I didn’t know then was that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle didn’t give a fig about my happiness. They cared about selling magazines and making money.
This EU debate is full of quackery and confusion. For every statistic there’s a counter-statistic. Both sides feature men and women known for telling lies. Rupert Murdoch is in charge of propaganda.
Confusion is fertile ground for manipulation. In the same way that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle knew I was lost and sad and insecure and hated the changes happening to my body, so the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson know perfectly well that we as a country are lost and sad and insecure and hate the changes happening to our communities. They know we want to kick something, and for reasons as transparent as they are despicable, they want that thing to be the EU. It’s like pointing at the sky while you’re picking someone’s pocket. Or stealing their children’s future.
We’re told to worry about democracy in the EU when our current government was elected on 24% of the eligible vote and are currently being investigated for electoral fraud by twenty police forces. We’ve got an unelected House of Lords flush with the likes of Sir Philip Green, who is currently refusing to be questioned by elected MPs about the gaping hole in the pension fund of BHS. We’ve got an unelected head of state that costs the taxpayer more by far than our gross contribution to the EU, even if it was as much as the leave campaign say it is, which it isn’t.
We’re told to worry about migrants claiming benefits when in fact there are more UK citizens claiming benefits in other European countries than there are people from other European countries claiming benefits in the UK.
We’re told we can ‘take back control’ when in fact that’s impossible. In practical terms it’s impossible – if we want free trade we’ll have to accept free movement. In metaphysical terms it’s impossible. There is no such thing as control. There’s no such thing as security. This is not that type of world. The best we can hope for is the relative security of peace and a healthy planet and knowing that we can call on our friends and neighbours if we need them, and that they can call on us.
I could go on, but the lies are so many and so varied that I could go on all day and I still wouldn’t have got to the bottom of them. And it’s pointless anyway, because we’re voting for a future that hasn’t happened yet. The Channel 4 sitcom ‘Power Monkeys’ articulates it perfectly: ‘People who don’t know what’s going to happen are asking people who don’t understand what’s happening a question to which no-one knows the answer.’
It’s tempting to shrug and walk away. But we can’t. Not if we care about our future. And I believe we owe it to all the people who have died fighting for the freedom to live to care about our future. We have to find an answer. Somehow, in spite of all the egos and the lies and the vague and waffly statements about sovereignty and democracy and taking back control we have to find an answer.
I used my imagination to recover from anorexia and its long and debilitating hangover. I used imagination to escape the horrors of the present and imagine a better future. I imagined the kind of person I wanted to be. I imagined the kind of world I wanted to live in. I made books of pictures and affirmations. I worked out what mattered. I challenged my fears. I failed. I tried again. I failed again. I kept trying. I’m not there yet. I’m nowhere near. But I know I’m going in the right direction and I know I’ll keep on walking.
That’s what this debate is about. It’s not about whether the EU is perfect. It’s about whether we’re going in the right direction and whether we’ll keep on walking.
In deciding how to cast my vote I tried to ignore the hysterical screaming about the economy and immigration. The lurching (on both sides) from greed to xenophobia and back again. I remembered how I got over the fear and hysteria of anorexia and I re-imagined the kind of future I wanted for myself. And I imagined the kind future I wanted for my sisters’ children. I went back to basics and tried to think about what actually matters. To me. And then I held it up against each side and easily found my answer.
The EU was set up after centuries of deadly violence as a way of keeping the peace. Far-right groups and Putin are in favour of Brexit. Northern Ireland is worried about it. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to start fighting. I want peace to be part of my future.
The EU gives me the right to live, love, work, buy a house, get free healthcare and retire in any of twenty eight member states. I don’t want my choices to be limited. I want freedom of movement to be part of my future.
The EU protects wild birds, especially the ones at risk of extinction: ‘Member States must designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the survival of threatened species and all migratory birds. Hunting periods are limited and hunting is forbidden when birds are at their most vulnerable. Activities that directly threaten birds, such as their deliberate killing, capture or trade, or the destruction of their nests, are banned. Member States must outlaw all forms of non-selective and large scale killing of birds.’
You might hope the UK government would honour these protections if we left the EU, but there’s every reason to doubt it: ‘The Birds and Habitats Directive would go’ declared George Eustice (environment minister and MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle) describing this and other conservation tools as ‘spirit-crushing.’
I don’t agree that conservation directives are spirit-crushing. I want birds to be part of my future.
The EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ scheme protects Dartmoor, Snowdonia and the Lake District. Environmentalists are afraid of a developmental free-for-all in the event of a Brexit. In Welsh, Snowdonia is Eryri, which means Land of the Eagles. I want the Land of the Eagles to be part of my future.
The EU stands up for worker’s rights, so that no matter who is in power we are protected. In 1982, for example, the EU sued the British government for failing to comply with the Equal Pay Act. I want worker’s rights to be part of my future.
The EU invented fishing quotas.
Fishing quotas are a good example of the public being misled about the way the EU actually works. We’re led to believe that fishing quotas are handed down from Brussles by unelected bureaucrats with a much greater sense of loyalty to countries like France and Spain than the UK. In fact fishing quotas are decided by a council of ministers, including our own (elected) fisheries minister. Far from being snubbed, the UK usually gets the second-highest fishing quota of all the member states. It’s the UK government who’s responsible for distributing the quota. Greenpeace are currently using EU law to sue the UK government for failing to allocate fair fishing quotas to small-scale, low-impact vessels. It’s worth remembering that fishing quotas were brought in to tackle the problems caused by decades of overfishing. In terms of recovering fish stocks, they seem to be working. Like birds, fish don’t have passports. A co-ordinated response is required. Without a common policy it’s a race to the bottom to see who can catch all the fish before the fish run out. I want fish to be part of my future.
The EU has forced us to clean up our oceans and our beaches. When I was a child and swimming at the wrong tide I’d get caught in a slick of raw sewage. I don’t want raw sewage to be part of my future.
The Common Agricultural Policy includes money towards rural development and stewardship schemes. Farmers are paid to help protect the environment. Under EU law, England is free to cut subsidies to big farmers and give more subsidies to smaller farmers and environmental schemes. It hasn’t bothered. In the words of James Meek this suggests that: ‘Brexit would return the country to pre-EEC days of duty-free imports and subsidised farmers, but with many fewer small farms, and fewer obstacles to the expansion of large-scale, mechanised, chemical farming.’
These are the things I care about. And for these reasons (and many others) I’m voting to remain.
The EU gets it wrong. It’s clunky and bureaucratic and annoying. It’s weird and distant and happens in Brussels, of all places, where nobody’s ever been. It’s a work in progress. And a project in crisis. Flooded with refugees and reeling from the 2008 meltdown, which was caused by the banks – many of them based in the City of London – and paid for by the people. But the EU is us. It was formed at least partly in our image. We were part of its conception and we continue to shape its future. The problems we face today, from terrorism to climate change to fish to birds to TTIP, are best faced together. This is not the time to double down and go smaller. Trust me, it doesn’t work.
We need to be the change we want to see, stand up and be counted, take our seat at the table and grow.
Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the principles members of the European Union have to abide by:
‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’
Britain is one of twenty eight member states who have all agreed to abide by these principles. I’m proud of that. I want these values to be my future.