Instead of Taking Flight From the EU, We Should Stay and Work Even Harder to Reform and Improve What It Does

20/06/2016 17:18 | Updated 20 June 2016

In these final days before the most important referendum in Britain's history, what should we scrutinise? To my mind, some of this time would be well spent examining and auditing the capabilities of those who propose such a radical change in the nation's position in the world, and asking if they truly understand the consequences of their geopolitical objective.

As a cohort, the most prominent figures of the Leave campaign are speakers rather than leaders. They are student debaters and - for what that it is worth - effective orators. But they are not men of experience, with a hinterland of knowledge and expertise.

None of them has managed a business, or undertaken an enterprise as potentially messy, confusing and destabilizing as Brexit would be.

Government is not a branch of the entertainment industry - which is why not a single prominent Leaver in the House of Commons would make a good head of Government or occupant of one of the great offices of state - the position of Chancellor, Home Secretary, or Foreign Secretary.

Second, there has been far too little consideration of the implications for trade of Brexit. We are a trading nation, and have been so for hundreds of years. This was so in the 18th Century when Britain traded with Holland and its partners in the Far East; it has been so in more recent times as we have nurtured commercial links with continental countries as well as the nations of the Commonwealth.

The only thing more alarming than the potential return to punitive tariffs - for which the British consumer will sooner or later pay - is how little has been said about it by the Leave camp. They urge voters to "take back control" but neglect to explain how businesses are expected to control their future after they have lost access to the European Single Market.

Ditch the slogans and consider the reality for a medium-sized business, dependent upon parts or materials from EU nations, caught in the legal limbo between EU membership and full exit.

Would the firm's contracts be affected? Would its chief executive be able to plan ahead with any confidence? Of one thing, at least, he can be certain: his legal bill will be high.

For the most part, this campaign has been a theatrical parade rather than a substantive argument about the national interest. Some sections of the press have joined in the sneering at "experts" - as if hard-won professional wisdom were actually a barrier to clear thinking in such an important decision.

In particular, the Daily Mail has become less a newspaper than a political campaign body. To take one example of its coverage: it has done the debate and its readers no favours by rubbishing Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and a staunch opponent of Brexit.

Those with any memory of the Mail's history - particularly its defence of Hitler - will read its thuggish interventions with great caution. Yet shared memory is precisely what has been missing from the shrill national conversation.

We have reached this point - the brink of Brexit - not because the Leave campaign has been so fantastic but because we have lost the collective historical perspective that any successful nation requires. Yes, the significance of the European Union to the UK is not identical to the profound symbolism it has to, say, France or Germany. But we are (or should be) no less invested in the spirit of cooperative enterprise that the EU represents and embodies.

After two world wars, the peoples of Europe decided to build a structure that would enshrine the shared interests and cross-border collaboration of countries with different languages, different rules and different histories.

We should not forget that Britain was desperate to join and would have done so long before 1973 if not for De Gaulle's "Non".

So much is written about the shortcomings of the EU, some of it justified. But - this week, of all weeks - we should remember its achievements too, not only as an engine of commercial growth but also as a collective expression of an entire continent's desire never again to descend into the fire and blood of war.

Instead of taking flight from the EU, we should stay and work even harder to reform and improve what it does. It is a sign of weakness to leave a club because it is not entirely satisfactory. The honourable choice is to stay, and get on with the job of making the EU fit for the 21 st Century. What the Leave camp call "taking back control" looks like a hasty exit to me. We should resist their bogus rhetoric - and vote Remain on Thursday.