It's Hard to Believe That We Might Be on the Cusp of Leaving the European Union

22/06/2016 12:39 | Updated 22 June 2016

It's hard to believe that we are on the cusp of leaving the European Union. The big question we're facing goes to the heart of who we are as a country, what it means to be British.

Two years ago I was juggling maternity leave with campaigning in another referendum, rocking my baby boy to sleep and then hitting the phones to ask East Dunbartonshire residents to support Scotland staying in the UK. (My apologies to those who got cut short when naptime ended...)

I made the case that Scotland is better off economically, and has more influence globally, as part of the UK. And I drew on a less tangible, but just as important, emotional argument. I love what we have created together in the UK, from the BBC to the NHS, from the soft power of our culture to the strength of our democracy: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I don't want Scotland to separate from our friends and family in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For me the arguments are analogous for this referendum. In an inter-connected world, the UK has more economic success as part of the Single Market, and more clout in world affairs as a member of the EU. And whether we consider the aftermath of the Second World War, the embracing of eastern European countries as the Cold War ended, or the fragile rebuilding of peace in the Balkans, I am proud of what the European Union has done to promote peace, security and democratic values. I don't want us to retreat from our leading role in the EU, to storm off in a huff and find ourselves diminished, looking inward.

Scotland nearly left the UK, and tomorrow's result looks even closer. In both campaigns we have seen the destructive power of nationalism. The independence referendum divided my country. Even now, I know of people who have friends or family members they no longer speak to, so irreconcilable were their views. I fear we will see the same across the UK, but in an even uglier, nastier form.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership are clear that their brand of nationalism is inclusive of all races and religions, and they try to define Scottishness positively, rather than by what it isn't. Even so, there is an issue with a vocal minority of the SNP grassroots, who whip up online abuse and have engaged in bullying behaviour, even "hunting" politicians they disagree with. I remember English colleagues who engaged in the referendum debate expressing shock at the sheer torrent of "cybernat" abuse suddenly unleashed on their social media timelines. It was a daily reality for many Scottish MPs.

Ultimately, nationalist politics is about identity - you criticise the ideas, and it is interpreted as a personal attack. If you try to make the case on a nuanced constitutional argument about the precise optimal size of country structures, that quickly lands you in the weeds of dry discussions about subsidiarity and fiscal autonomy. In the end, the wider debate comes down to a sense of national pride - you can't quite escape the nationalist's inference that the people in your country are just intrinsically superior to those they are seeking to distance themselves from.

In the UK-wide Brexit leadership, there is none of the careful positioning of nationalism that we've seen north of the border. Instead we've had political leaders indulging in nasty insinuations, and demonising whole groups of people. Boris thought it was relevant to mention Obama's "part-Kenyan" heritage, Zac Goldsmith's mayoral campaign plumbed new depths with its foul attacks attempting to link Sadiq Khan to extremism, while Nigel Farage's Breaking Point poster literally mimics Nazi propaganda.

When I criticised Farage's comments on rape, my social media timeline gave me a glimpse into the horrible anti-Muslim sentiment lurking online. Sections of the media feed us hate on a daily basis, and double standards in newspaper reporting reinforce negative racial stereotypes.

This is not the kind of country I want Britain to be. We can and should be a tolerant, open, outward-looking country. Our politics should be a lively, energetic exchange of views, where ideas are robustly challenged in a climate that respects the individuals involved in the debate.

I cheered when London rejected the appalling campaign run for Zac Goldsmith, and elected Sadiq Khan as its first Muslim mayor. Tomorrow I hope as a country we will reject the hatred we have seen in this campaign, and vote Remain to consolidate the UK's place as a leader in Europe. Even if we do, those on all sides have much to do to stem the forces of division that have been unleashed.

Jo Swinson is a former Lib Dem MP and minister