£4,300 to quit the EU? Bring me my cheque book

Bill Durodie

First flight out please. Shutterstock/train station

Those who would have us remain in the EU simply don’t get it. They project all manner of reasons for why we should do so. Economic reasons, security and migration reasons, global connection and trade reasons. Heck, they even point to the bleeding obvious – that the Brexit camp is led by a bunch of fruitcakes like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

Every right-thinking person on the planet, it would seem, argues for the UK to stay in the European Union. All of the party leaders want us to remain, as does the government, many leading businesses, the International Monetary Fund, even Barack Obama (though using a US president to promote the EU highlights the profile problem of European leaders).

Quite frankly, I’m expecting the Archbishop of Canterbury to come out any minute now to pronounce on the Christian case for staying in. After all, Tracey Emin has.

As for the sovereign, well she would have a problem with erosions of sovereignty wouldn’t she? But we are reliably assured that she has no part to play in all of this and any views she may have on the matter are her own and not to be reported on by those who might know.

If it’s all so obvious, why the kerfuffle? Why the millions spent on a leaflet, the endless reminders of what we would lose? Never has such an evident case, it would seem, been presented by such insecure proponents. They are of course not insecure about the views of the people they see as educated, global citizens. No, it is the ignorant, the feckless, those who simply don’t know, who don’t understand, who are old and who are victims of a multitude of prejudices they know not of, who are the cause of their ire.

Swivel-eyed loon? Moi? PA/Lauren Hurley

But when I, as a reasonably well-educated individual, heard that it would cost us all £4,300 if we left, my instinct was to reach for my cheque book and ask where I should present myself to make the payment.

What remain campaigners don’t get is that for most of us, and throughout most of history, freedom has been priceless. Freedom means the freedom to make your own decisions – even if these are bad or costly. The alternative is to be told what to do, or worse to have a state of affairs that confounds and confuses lines of accountability, so that those we elect to represent us are able to point elsewhere whenever things don’t work out, even when they were complicit in the decision-making.

If only one positive thing were to emerge from leaving the EU it would be this – we would have to accept responsibility for what happens to us. It would challenge the profound sense of determinism and concomitant resignation of our times.

Moral decision

Leaving the EU allows us to assume moral responsibility. That this should need pointing out is a sign of how far we have come since the great Enlightenment writer John Stuart Mill concluded his work On Liberty by noting that: “A state which dwarfs its men … will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” The real role of government is to lead and inspire, not just to protect us or make us better off (assuming it does those in the first place).

This has been known since the beginning of time but found its highest expression over the course of the two great revolutions for liberation of the 18th century in France and the US. The latter was immortalised through the words of Francis Scott Key’s poetic imagination as the Land of the Free – not The Land of the Safe or The Land of the Better Off.

Jean-Claude Juncker: inspiring, right? EPA

In all of this hoo-ha we risk losing our own agency, but there are always some who would assume it for us. The EU, more than almost any other similarly disconnected, bureaucratic, anti-democratic and elitist set of institutions, has set the bar high in breeding a sense of apathy among its citizens, a sense that the world is too complex for us to engage with and that what happens is best determined for us rather than driven by us.

But it was ordinary people who forged the very states and sovereignties that are now so readily being eroded and given away. States emerged from the actions – often violent – of people seeking representation by the people and for the people. The EU represents the very opposite of this. It is an attempt by disconnected elites to manage the masses who they view as a problem. A shift from nation states that bounded the communities they were accountable to, to member states that subsume themselves to a supposedly higher moral calling, determined not by us, but by other elites like them.

Freedom to make our own mistakes

The EU, sociologically, is the religion of today’s directionless and fearful leaders. It offers them a framework to cling on to in an age devoid of wider meaning or purpose. But we do not just live our lives as animals do – we lead them. So most do not take kindly to those who, for whatever supposedly benevolent reason, seek to impose their model of how life should be. And people, as evidenced by the support for Brexit irrespective of who may lead that campaign, do look for their own direction to life – not just more of it or more money.

People who believe in a cause or project are far more effective agents of it than those who are coerced or corralled as members. All states who sought to command and control the actions of their citizens in the last century collapsed from within, as people withdrew their energies and enthusiasms from the projects they were supposed to be supporting. Nothing is guaranteed to accelerate cynicism faster than being told what to do while remaining disconnected and disengaged.

It is freely-willed social relations that oil the complex affairs of nations. Individuals need to have a sense of their own autonomy and potential, as well as that of society through having had their imaginations captivated or inspired towards achieving personal or social goals and then being held accountable for their achievements – or not – by those they can relate to.

Accordingly, it matters not one jot that the campaign to leave is led by a bunch of nutters or that it may cost us money to leave. At least they have a sense of their own agency and the need to assume responsibility for themselves and others. Let the remain camp run its beauty contest and be driven by filthy lucre, Brexiters should focus on the moral principle that matters here, whatever the cost.

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Bill Durodie does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Bath provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.