According to Christopher Hitchens, one of the most annoying aspects of being a writer is reconciling an innate professional dislike of cliché with the occasions on which one is forced, by circumstance, to use one. The cliché I have in mind is the idea, first brought to my attention in an episode of The Simpsons, that a crisis can be viewed as, or turned into, an opportunity. I wish it weren't the case but, as per Hitch's observation, I have no choice. The issue to which I reluctantly apply it is Britain's upcoming referendum on its membership of the European Union.
It would be very easy to consider the very holding of this, now inevitable, referendum as a constitutional crisis. Europhiles across the country, I imagine, are poised to nervously wring their hands, start making excuses and decry the fact that we are even having this discussion at all. This has precedent in my native Scotland. Prior to our recent referendum, of which you may have heard, much of the feeling on the unionist side was that the referendum itself was unnecessary and should have been avoided if at all possible. So intense was this feeling that not long after the "No" side won, their prominent politicians piled in to demand that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rule out a second referendum on Scottish independence. The referendum itself was always viewed with suspicion and as an unnecessary, begrudging concession to the forces of separation. It was viewed as a crisis to be resolved.
This, in my view, was and is wrong.
Firstly, much like in Scotland, trying to prevent a referendum is a pointless exercise. Once the SNP had established itself as a main contender and subsequent party of government then the referendum had become inevitable. Similarly, the rise of UKIP and Eurosceptic feeling on the broader right-wing of British politics has let a restless genie out of her bottle and she is in no mood, it seems, to go back in any time soon. Her price? A referendum, it's as simple as that. Attempts to hobble it are akin to trying to walk on smoke.
So where is the opportunity to be found from this seemingly bleak picture?
The opportunity comes in the form of a challenge. We pro-Europeans, according to polls the majority of Brits, now have the opportunity to put out principles, beliefs and values to the test. We can stand up for free trade across an unencumbered market of 500million people. We can stand up for the judicial successes that have seen an end to the Costa Del Crime. We can stand up for the generations of cooperation and mild-manner debate that has replaced the threat of using tariffs and protectionism to cripple economies once viewed as competitors but now viewed as allies. We pro-European liberals now have the platform and the reason to make our case heard with the stakes as high as possible.
There is real potential to bring the advantages of being a member of the world's largest free trade zone back into the public discourse and present a real, myth-free vision of the successes of the European project. This also comes with the satisfying prospect of taking a blue, star-spangled hammer to some of the more pernicious myths about the EU. What pro-European worthy of the name would not view this as a tasty prospect? The ring has been built, the entrances music is ready; now we can strap on a pair of gloves and come out of our corner swinging with fact, compassion and solidarity cheering us all the way.
Of particular note is my own generational cohort, generation Y or the Millennials (depending on your preference). According to a recent poll for ICM we are overwhelmingly pro-European. We are the Facebook/Twitter/Netflix generation for whom defying borders is as easy as clicking a mouse. We recoil at the idea of being encumbered when we travel across the continent for work, to study, or for the sheer hell of it. We are, arguably, the first generation of British young people for whom the prospect on conflict within our continent is not just unlikely but utterly absurd; the hang-ups of the World Wars and the Cold War held by our parents and grandparents are now a quaint curio to us. We are the most European and international generation of young people yet and, I suspect, we will be keen to prevent our horizons shrinking. The referendum on the EU presents us with the opportunity to do just that.
We have the opportunity to come out of this referendum enlivened in our common endeavour, let's go ahead and take it, even if we have to endure a little bit of cliché for our troubles.