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Europe: A Messy Debate of the Heart

21/06/2016 11:44 | Updated 21 June 2016

Death, on an unassuming street of a West Yorkshire market town, brought the country's EU Referendum campaign to a searing halt beneath a heavy June sky. A young MP with a rich past behind her and, by all accounts, an even richer future ahead, was assassinated in broad daylight by a man purported to have shouted "Britain first" as he shot her.

Jo Cox MP was a passionate Remainian, but a realistic one. "Responsible debate is paramount," she wrote. "I fear, however, that we won't get it. What I do know is that Britain should be engaged and leading in Europe, not disengaged and waving goodbye." It feels wrong, almost tasteless, in the chilly shadow of her murder for any of us to pick up the baton so quickly and continue running towards June 23rd. But the fear that we could wake up to a new sort of country is a real one; a smaller country, one in which insidious rhetoric polarises, a meaner and altogether less welcoming place that is selfish and insular.

Responsible debate is impossible when one camp's most potent argument appeals not to the rational brain, but to the emotional heart. The heart has been monopolised by Brexit: the heart says leave and reclaim our country, the heart says that Britain will only be Great again if we cut ourselves from the cumbersome, opaque, corrupt EU. And in submitting to the roiling depths of the organ that rules our emotions, the Eurosceptic has become the Eurohater. Of course, not every Leave voter is a racist; it would be completely wrong to suggest that they are. But every racist will, to be sure, vote to Leave.

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Eurohaters foment fear by speaking of a United States of Europe, and a Fourth Reich. These are not just the views of stereotypes or the football hooligans in Marseilles who chant "Fuck off Europe we're all voting out". In campaigning on the ground I encounter it across all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. One young woman tells me of a post-war Britain that her parents talk fondly of. She is wavering as a result, and feels nostalgia for a Britain that she has never known. A male business owner in his twenties evangelises about the tidal wave of prosperity that a Leave vote will unleash; not because of a magical new trade deal, but because of all the jobs, currently occupied by migrants, that will be vacated for Brits.

"Keep it British," he says in a constituency with one of the lowest rates of immigration in the country.

Patriotism does not necessarily equal xenophobia. But the Leave campaign exposes a sclerotic seam of nationalist migrant-phobia. It legitimises arguments masquerading as patriotism that are nothing more than an ugly banner of racism. These are frightening echoes of Germany and a sleep-walking Europe in the 1930s; curious that these originate from the same people warning of a Fourth Reich. Yet when I dare to suggest this to a Brexit friend, they turn on me: "How dare I accuse them of racism? This is about taking our country back," they say. "But it was never given away in the first place," I counter.

Debates of the heart are messy, like a precarious couple arguing over grievances which could either make or break them. My overwhelming sense is that this referendum has above all revealed just how entrenched a divide there is - directly down the middle of our country, running from its base to its crown, through the very core of this land. What depresses me more than anything, though, is the lack of voices arguing with all their hearts for the European in them. That does not mean an abdication of our nationality; this is, after all, the age of fluidity - of gender, age, education, experience. Why has the Remain campaign failed to capitalise on our emotional investment in Europe? You can be British and a proud European. It doesn't mean that we don't still love Shakespeare, or Queen Elizabeth, or Gray's "Elegy", or pork pies.

Leave campaigners suggest that pro-Europeans are by definition enemies of British values. Ought we to be patenting moral ideals in the cause of promoting brand Britain? To suggest that one set of morals bind a people and elevate them is dangerous thinking: false, reactionary, counter-intuitive to all we purport to stand for in the 21st century. I would hope that the values we hold dear are those of any right-minded, free-thinking, liberty-loving, equality-defending person of any nationality or faith. And surely a value system for the 21st Century must be one of compassion and solidarity, something we should continue to build with our fellow Europeans. Yet solidarity is becoming increasingly tricky to defend. Like the pro-Union English silenced by the louder, brasher Scot Nats who similarly monopolised the 'heart' side of the debate in 2014, it is difficult to argue for strength in unity, when unity and its connotations has now become a byword for treason: another helping of McCarthyism, anyone?

Yes, we'd all love a holiday on the Cote d'Azur. We enjoy poking fun at the terrifying efficiency of the German Vorsprung durch Technik. More seriously we rejoice, rightly, in our historic alliances and the freedoms they have won for us. But this is about so much more than our fondness for baguettes and cheap flights to Malaga. This is about the things we have in common, not about our differences. This is about being a global citizen in a shrinking world.

People talk about what sort of country we want to live in, what sort of Briton we each want to be. I know what sort of a Briton I don't want to be, and what sort of a Britain I don't want to live in. I don't want to be known as one of a generation who voted to further isolate our small island. I don't want to be part of a country that sees a quarantining of itself from the perceived ills of globalisation as a solution to the interconnected world we live in, a world that will only grow more so. I don't want to be part of a country whose Weltanschaung is so blinkered that we believe it is good to send a message to our children that we should build borders, rather than demolish them. After all, we have spent a tumultuous century deconstructing walls and building institutions that celebrate the ties that bind us, not the - often imagined - things that wedge us apart. We are a small island. But we are bigger than that; we always have been. Benign, proper, right. I ask myself, what sort of a European do I want to be? An embracer of diversity. A participant, not a quitter. A reformer, not a destroyer. And being that European means, also, that I can strive to be the best Briton I can.