My Opening Speech in Last Night’s EU Debate

My Opening Speech in Last Night’s EU Debate May 26, 2016

As mentioned, I was on a three person panel defending remaining in the EU against three others arguing for leaving. The debate was in the context of humanism, especially as it was hosted by the Dorset Humanists, in Bournemouth.

I was tasked with going first for Remain, and thought I’d introduce a little psychology and a touch of philosophy. I had only ten minutes, and my teammates were dealing with the more common issues that you might be aware of (economics etc.):

Hello everyone. I would first like to say that I am not, and nor will any of my fellow panellists, going to change your minds. By and large, you will have come here, whether you know this or not, to seek confirmation for your views. We know this in psychology, that we are excellent at intuitively deciding things, and then adding the reasons afterwards. This is known as a post hoc rationalisation. We do it all of the time. The EU decision is no different. Most of you will have come here to confirm those intuitions, and use the rational arguments you hear tonight to defend what is really an intuitive case.

Why will we not change any minds? Something called the “Backfire Effect” shows that humans are far more likely to entrench in their original position when faced with rational evidence against that position. This means that most of you here will entrench in your original positions. Only really very few of you will genuinely be on the fence and swayable. So this is for you three.

I would like to say that not everything about the EU is good or great. I find that Remainers have a more nuanced approach to the debate than Bexiteers, who seem to claim that everything about the EU is the devil incarnate. This should raise alarm bells. It’s all too convenient that absolutely everything is terrible and there is nothing good at all about the EU. This smacks of an absolutist lens through which they see everything.

In sum, the EU has given us jobs, growth, influence, investment, security, rights, our environment back, all in a changing world. I think it chimes with far more humanist ideals than the alternative. If you know anything about the people leading the Leave campaign, you will know they are by and large neoliberals who want to deregulate our society, our rights and equalities, our working conditions. We can survive outside, of course we can. We will just be better within.

OK, let’s challenge some ideals that perhaps our opponents will hold. Put your hand up here if you chose to be born in the UK (if indeed you were). Put your hand up if you merited being born here. So, in reality, we were merely lucky to be born here, in a country with access to great resources, services and liberal ideals: sheer joss. Likewise, someone who was born into a country that has none or less of those things was equally lucky. Unlucky. Given that our existences here are predicated upon mere luck, what right do we have to deny those who were unlucky not to have access to resources, access to our resources? Borders are nothing but accidents of history. When you strip away these ideals, you realise that we are all humans. You know, we’re all humanists here, right? Should we not, therefore, see ourselves as humans first? Instead, we see ourselves tribally. We fight for our neck of the woods, without questioning our intentions. As a human, to physically move is a fundamental freedom. Where do we draw the line, then? When do we take our own desires and place them over those of many others, and see that as right?

I think this whole debate is really about immigration for the vast majority of people. It is about the ingroup – people like you and I. And we like people like us, because we like ourselves. Back to psychology, we know that people can be split broadly into two groups in voting preference – liberal and conservative. Liberals, it turns out, are more concerned with fairness and care/harm; conservatives with authority, purity and, not surprisingly, the ingroup. These core psychological traits then play themselves out in the moral decisions we make. Politics is a subset of morality. What we SHOULD do on a large scale. This defines how we approach the eu debate, and will shape your decisions. Liberal charities will more likely be outreach, “one world for all” type affairs. Conservative charities are more about the family, the in-group. Do you see yourself, then, as a human – indeed, a humanist – or as British, to the point of exclusion of others? Liberals seek to expand their world, conservatives seek to shrink theirs. Are you outward looking, or inward looking? Think in terms of newspapers. The Daily Mail will alienate outsiders, and play on fear to the in-group. The Guardian will be a bit more lovey dovey and idealistic. What paper do you read? Thing is, we have the most right-wing media in Europe, as according to YouGov. Your EU decision will be largely based on your intuitive moral frameworks, supported by the media you choose to pay attention to. Bear that in mind.

So, immigration…

The latest official figure for EU migration is 20,000 lower than for those coming from outside the EU. I don’t understand the idea that the government has had a chance to tighten borders and immigration with non-EU migration, but it is that much more EU migration. So what makes people believe we can lower migration out of the EU and into the UK if we can’t even do that with non-EU migrants? Incidentally, a recent report has found that there is no evidence of benefits migration from EU migrants.

One question I would like to pose to the opposition panel is this: Would you pay £10 / £20 / £50 to stop EU migration? If the answer is yes, then this shows that the economic arguments are fairly irrelevant. It is more fundamental than that.

I don’t deny there are challenges coming with immigration. We don’t have endless space and infrastructure. I am not idealistic in that sense. I do believe that the challenges in immigration are being felt all over Europe and this will probably lead to a reformation of the ideals of unhindered free movement. The stats show that EU migrants, predominantly young and working age, are net contributors to the system. Most of the welfare budget is spent on pensions and the NHS, which is overtly top heavy in its spending on over 65s. These two areas are barely affected by EU migrants. Indeed, there are many claims that the NHS (whose many groups support Remain), would fall apart without EU workers plugging the huge gaps. Erroneously blaming migrants for internal structural shortcomings was something that led us to WW2, and we don’t want to go there again.

Finally, I want to talk about the environment and accountability, one of the most important areas of debate tonight, which has not been brought up enough in the media: it needs to be heard. When you have no one to be accountable to, you often end up being a bit of a bastard. This is why NATO, the UN and the EU are necessary organisations to help give peer accountability. Do you know what you get when you have pure, unadulterated sovereignty? Do you know what you get? North Korea. Or, when you outpower accountability, you get the US, China and Russia. Do you know what you get when you compromise on sovereignty to other, multinational institutions? Accountability. It’s that simple. I want to compromise our sovereignty, to have pooled sovereignty. I will say that again: I want to compromise our sovereignty, because that will ensure we do not make morally rash and bankrupt decisions. Indeed, we know that the things that UKIP MEPs and the Conservative government have voted against in the EU are pretty problematic. We would have welcomed TTIP with open arms, we voted against regulation for Chinese steel dumping, voted against regulation for tax avoidance and evasion. The EU keeps the worst excesses of every nation within it in check.

I mean, why not leave NATO and the UN. They are LESS democratically accountable, and constrain our sovereignty, right Brexit?

Kind of like school governors, I see the EU in the role as supporting by challenge, and I am happy for it to do so.

EU membership has had a profound, revolutionary impact on UK environmental policy. In the 70s and 80s the UK earned the unattractive reputation for being the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’…

Today, many of the most important UK environmental policies and priorities are those that have emerged via the EU.

George Osborne said that he does not believe that we should go further than our European partners on climate change, so the EU is at least providing some minimum goals towards which the UK must strive….

The EU protects UK wildlife through habitats and birds directives which oblige the government to provide protected wildlife zones, which the UK government is trying to get rid of in Brussels. The UK government has launched a review of the habitats and birds directive, prompted by the Chancellor’s belief that nature protection was placing a ridiculous burden upon UK businesses, and despite the fact that the review demonstrated that this claim was unfounded, the government has been pressing to scrap it ever since. If you care about nature and the environment at all, leaving the EU should ring huge alarm bells.

A total withdrawal suggests an erosion of environmental policy, one which risks significant economic damage to the UK.

Brexiteers would want to go back to the golden days of our untreated sewage floating across the channel to France and vice versa! No, shared sovereignty means:

Our beaches are clean

Our rivers are clean

Our air is getting cleaner (3 cities are on the end of legal action)

Our CO2 emissions are targeted and being acted upon

Our protection of animal habitats is enforced

And that was down to the EU. On our own, we will just go back to getting away with as much as we can. Sadly, that is human nature.

I live happily in a relationship with my partner and children. You could say that parts of my life are compromised. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

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