THE BLOG
29/02/2016 06:06 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Should I Stay or Should I Go - The Clash That Makes Me a Floating Voter in the EU Referendum

For the first time in my life, I am a floating voter. I have four months in which to make up my mind. At this stage, I am genuinely undecided which way I will vote in the referendum on Britain's relationship with the European Union. My position right now is that I will listen very carefully to both sides, and make my decision when I have to - on 23 June.

For the first time in my life, I am a floating voter. I have four months in which to make up my mind. At this stage, I am genuinely undecided which way I will vote in the referendum on Britain's relationship with the European Union. My position right now is that I will listen very carefully to both sides, and make my decision when I have to - on 23 June.

It is an unusual position to be in, though I suspect it is the position of many in the country. I have seldom been in doubt as to my political opinions. I have always been a Conservative, and always will be. I have always championed freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law as my most basic values, and always will. I have always believed in Britain as a global player, outward-looking and internationalist, and always will. Yet on this question, I am uncertain.

Until recently, I always argued that we should stay in the EU and fight for change from within. I always argued that it is better to stay in the game, to stay on the field, instead of picking up our ball and leaving the pitch. But now I am questioning that position. I question whether the idea of changing from within is now just a pipe-dream.

I admire what the Prime Minister has tried to do. I think he is genuinely fighting for Britain's interests, and I am attracted to his argument that the deal he has secured gives us, in his words, "the best of both worlds". He has fought valiantly and I want to listen to his case. But I question whether the deal is enough.

Until now, I had hoped that we might be able to secure a deal that would result in a radical shake-up of the EU. As an institution, it is out-dated, over-bureaucratic, unaccountable and inefficient. In the European Parliament elections in 2014, people across Europe - not just Britain - sent the European elite a very clear and powerful message: the need for change. Yet with remarkable physical dexterity coupled with political stupidity, the EU elite - mostly consisting of political has-beens and unelected bureaucrats - stuck both fingers in their ears while also covering their eyes and sticking both feet in their mouths. Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schultz are the epitome of EU arrogance. Every time they speak, they push me further towards Brexit - I sometimes wonder if, in fact, they are covert agents for Brexit.

So I share the frustrations of many. I don't like belonging to an institution that is so unaccountable, and I don't like the absurd position where legislation drafted by unelected and over-paid bureaucrats in Brussels is imposed on Britain against the wishes of the people. It is said that Britain gives the EU £350 million every week. Some say we contribute £23million per day to the EU, others say it's as high as £55 million. And yet it is said that the EU's accounts have not been audited for years. So what do we get for our money? Whether it is £23 million or £55 million a day or £350 million a week, it is a huge amount of money. So, what do we get and is it worth it? That is my question for those who want us to stay in. As I said at the beginning, I am genuinely undecided - so if they can answer that question satisfactorily, I may well vote yes.

Why am I undecided? Essentially for two reasons. Firstly, there are arguments on both sides which are powerful, persuasive and with which I agree. And second, because there are people on both sides whom I respect enormously and always consider worth listening to. Of course the debate must be about the issues and not the personalities, but inevitably when there are people on both sides whom one respects, one listens to them.

Regarding the arguments - on the whole, I agree with the 'stay' campaign that we are better off sticking together with our neighbours, working with them on issues that confront us all: trade, the environment, security. To fight global terror, to tackle climate change and to pursue free trade, we are stronger together.

I work a lot in places of conflict and repression around the world and usually, people say we're better speaking from within the EU. Just a few days ago, I was in Burma and in a small village two hours away from Rangoon I asked a group of Burmese friends what they thought. All but one of them said they prefer us to stay in, because when 28 nations speak with one voice on an issue, it is much more powerful than any individual country taking a stand. Only one, a Burmese Eurosceptic, demurred.

And yet - I also know the frustrations of trying to find a common foreign policy position among 28 member states. I used to fight these battles within the EU every year, to seek a stronger EU Common Position on Burma - and inevitably, it always got watered down to the lowest common denominator, the weakest position. There would be merit in having a more flexible position, where member states could accept the Common Position not as the highest bar but as the baseline, and have the freedom to develop individual foreign policy positions that go beyond the EU's.

When William Hague, Saajid Javid and Robert Halfon argue to stay in, I want to listen carefully. Their arguments are serious and worth considering. When The Economist warns of the dangers of leaving, I want to listen carefully. When military chiefs argue that leaving the EU will undermine our security in this age of terrorism, I want to listen carefully. And when the United States, our closest ally, urges us to stay, I want to listen carefully.

In addition to the argument that we are stronger together, that in this era of chaos and terror we would be unwise to take a leap into the unknown, there is one other powerful argument to stay: Scotland. I desperately want the United Kingdom to stay together. I was relieved when Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014. And I recognise that if we leave the EU, there is a real danger that Scotland would have good grounds for demanding another referendum on its future in the UK, and a danger that this time round it might vote to leave.

And yet - when Michael Gove, perhaps my favourite Cabinet minister, speaks, I listen. I am a self-appointed President of the Michael Gove Fan Club, and I say so unashamedly (though if others better-qualified to take that role step forward, I'd happily take the role of Secretary or teaboy). I agree with much of the principled case he sets out in his recent essay on Brexit. I watched his BBC interview and found myself nodding in profound agreement. I do want sovereignty to be restored to Britain, I do want decisions to be taken closer to the British people, and I don't want the absurd, unrealistic and dangerous pursuit of 'ever-closer Union' in the EU.

When former Labour Foreign Secretary and founder of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), David Owen, backs 'out', and when actor Michael Caine does the same, it gives me pause for thought. When German-born Labour MP Gisela Stuart supports 'out', and Muriel Dermarcus, a French writer does the same, it makes me think. And when my friends such as MPs David Burrowes and Paul Scully, neither of whom are narrow-minded little Englanders by any means, but in fact are deeply engaged in the wider world, believe we should leave, I will listen. The idea of leaving the EU used to be a view held by people regarded as the loony fringe - now it is becoming increasingly credible, increasingly mainstream, a view held by respectable internationally-minded moderate people who speak a lot of sense. Such people are worth listening to.

Contemporary Conservatives I admire and respect most fall on both sides of the debate - Michael Gove, Liam Fox (perhaps my favourite prominent Conservative outside the Cabinet) and Iain Duncan-Smith on the 'out' side, William Hague, Oliver Letwin and Chris Patten on the 'stay' side - are people I admire for one simple reason: they are not technocrats, they are thinkers. They are interested in ideas, they have values and principles, and they possess an intellectual curiosity that is both engaging and inspiring. I don't agree with them all on everything. As this article shows, I don't, for instance, share Chris Patten's enthusiasm for the EU project by any means - but, largely because of his time as Governor of Hong Kong, I admire his values and his intellectual abilities and I would always listen to what he has to say.

In an ideal world, if I had a magic wand, I would radically revamp the EU. I would abandon the nonsense of "ever-closer union", and instead reconfigure the institution into a slimmed down, much more flexible coalition of independent, sovereign nation states, working together multilaterally on those issues where it is in our interests to do so, and on those issues where we are more effective speaking with one voice, but eliminating the straight-jacket we have been in for the past 43 years. I would refocus the EU's attention from its parochial, navel-gazing focus on its internal affairs and towards a global perspective, to engage with dynamic new markets in Asia and South America. I would cut the bureaucracy, and end the absurd situation whereby 10,000 EU officials are paid more than the British Prime Minister. And then I'd stay in.

But that isn't what's on offer. And so I have to decide whether the deal the Prime Minister has negotiated - painstakingly, admirably, but nevertheless falling well short of my ideal - is one that truly gives us "the best of both worlds", or whether we'd be better off to cut our losses, negotiate a new trade agreement from outside EU membership, restore our sovereignty, strengthen our democracy and engage with the wider world. There are, genuinely, arguments to be heard on both sides; there are people worth listening to on both sides; there are pros and cons to either decision - and that's why I will take my time to decide.

I appeal to the 'stay' campaign to provide solid arguments for their case, to justify the millions of pounds Britain gives every day; I appeal to the likes to Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt to take a vow of silence if they don't wish to push me further towards Brexit; and I appeal for an intelligent, thoughtful and well-informed debate. Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt say that Britain has exasperated the EU - how do they think we feel after 43 years of their nonsense? We have been in the EU for one year longer than I have been alive. It is, therefore, a decision of a lifetime and not one to take lightly. The question summed up in the song by the Clash is the one we have to answer - Should I stay or should I go? I have much thinking to do in the next four months.