EU in or out: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

"Irrespective of the outcome, the decision to hold a referendum will not be judged kindly by history." James Perry, co-founder of certified B Corp COOK, weighs in on the debate that's dominating mainstream media channels – the referendum on whether the UK should stay a member of the European Union.

We live in interesting times. In the financial crisis of 2008 we all got to see the established order revealed. Our economic system was an emperor under a fierce spotlight, and we all saw that he has no clothes. As the future costs of his systemic flaws rack up before the excluded majority’s eyes, the Establishment marches serenely on, getting daily richer and more powerful. Add to this a few vainglorious ‘wars on terror’ with the present (refugee) cost, and future costs we will bequeath to our children, and it is hardly surprising that change is in the air.

Of course, just one part of the Emperor’s nakedness is the deep dis-alignment created by a single European currency which demands monetary union whilst pretending that fiscal independence can endure. We were all shocked by the bellicose rhetoric created by European ‘unity’ during the Greek debt crisis. That we are not hearing all about those rows is not because they have gone away, only that they have been superseded by an even greater and more immediate source of disunity. The refugee crisis has already all-but done for the Schengen agreement, and is an existential threat to the EU.

In such a context, it can only be the narrowest of self-interest that would think it a good idea to hold an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership, in June 2016 of all times. Irrespective of the outcome, the decision to hold a referendum will not be judged kindly by history – or by our European friends.

But here we are. So how on earth to respond?

As an entrepreneur, I have been in tight scrapes and I have had my share of guns held to my head – not least by HBoS in 2008, when they went bust and our business owed them money that we couldn’t repay (we did eventually).

It doesn’t matter whether it is Project Fear or Brexit campaigners putting a gun to my head, the response will be the same

My guiding principle whenever someone has held a gun to my head in business has always been to tell them to pull the trigger. It has never failed me and I am still alive to prove it.

So it doesn’t matter whether it is Project Fear or Brexit campaigners putting a gun to my head, the response will be the same. Project Fear is gutter politics and some of the treatment of dissidents (such as the director general of the British Chamber of Commerce) is creepy. Brexit’s narrative that “they’re all out to get us” is from the same gutter.

So far, so negative. Usually in such a circumstance, that would be that. I would, as usual, attend the poll in order to spoil my ballot paper in my customary petty protest at the abject lack of inspiration anywhere in our domestic politics.

But something in me is balking at doing this. The stakes feel too high. I feel that I must actually engage for once. Decide, even.

So here I go: My views on Europe are fairly moderate. Like so many, I am pro-European but broadly anti-EU, on the basis that I dislike unaccountable, opaque, technocratic bureaucracies who acquire power by osmosis. I went there in 2013 for a consultation, just to experience it first-hand. It was as expected – pompous, anachronistic, mechanistic, massive, baffling and ultimately a complete waste of two days. At some point it will need to be confronted. Now might be the time, but it might not be. Does anybody buy this ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ nonsense? The Scots were told something similar, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be long…

The point is that my vote is genuinely up for grabs. The reason that this remains the case is that, thus far, no one has really touched on any of the things that I care about.

I care about peace. But I do not believe that one achieves peace by making decisions (or designing systems) out of fear. I see that sticking everyone in a burning building with no exits might not be brilliant idea if peace is what one seeks.

I care about fraternity and social justice. But I do not believe that one achieves this by trying to impose a one-size-fits-all vision of what this looks like.

I love Europe and my European brothers. This will not change whether I am inside or outside the EU.

I care about prosperity. But I do not believe that GDP growth is a good measure of this. Instead I believe that there is much more to society than ‘the economy’, and much more to ‘the economy’ than money. And I believe that systems that allow oligarchies to dominate and undermine our broader prosperity.

I care about community. But I do not believe that community is something that does or can happen on an institutional level. The only thing that can ‘do’ community are people, it can only happen on a human level.

Both the IN and OUT campaigns are so caught up in the fear and loathing, and so obsessed with each other, that as usual they risk missing this critical moment to articulate to the people of Britain, and of Europe, what makes Britain different – and what makes Britain great.

My vote will go to the side who are able to articulate a positive vision. For Britain outside of Europe (a case which Michael Gove has come closest to), or for Britain as a champion for Great British values within the EU (a case which no one has yet bothered to make).

Frankly, I don’t really mind which it is because I don’t believe in doomsday. I believe in hope and in peace, and I believe in Britain. We can do this from inside or outside the EU. But to do so we need some proper leadership from people of vision, who believe in more than their own careers & reputations. It’s time for someone to step up and show some real leadership.


Photo credit: Olga Lednichenko