The conservative case to stay in the EU

by Apostolos Doxiadis | 30.05.2016

People who have witnessed the terrible consequences of populism in other countries—as I have, in Greece—can easily see through the attacks against the European Union being delivered by the likes of Nigel Farage. What the British people have been getting is another instantiation of the generic populist myth: that there is a blessed, paradisiac world, somewhere close, which an evil force—in his particular mythology Europe—is keeping us from. But there are also more serious people campaigning for the “leave” option. Most of those believe themselves to be conservative, and are addressing audiences mostly consisting of actual conservatives. By this I do not necessarily mean supporters of the Conservative Party—though often they are that too—but people who are conservative in the everyday sense of the word.

I can identify with them because I also consider myself, in many ways, a conservative. In fact, I see many aspects of myself in an essay by one of my favorite thinkers, Michael Oakeshot­t—also one of Margaret Thatcher’s favorite thinkers, incidentally— called “On being conservative.” In it, Oakeshoot writes: “To be conservative is . . .  is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices.” A conservative, we read, has a propensity “to use and to enjoy what is available . . . to delight in what is present, rather than on what was or may be.”

The June referendum is only nominally about a yes-or-no choice. It is in fact an issue in which there is one yes (“remain”) and legion no’s (“leave”), each one of them leading to an alternative future, possibilities that no one has really thought about—the proponents of Brexit are the first to admit this—no one can predict, and even less guarantee to be safe. Somehow, it is like deciding to leave your spouse to marry another, whom you know nothing about. In order for a conservative to make such a choice, his or her spouse has to be really bad, so bad in fact that leaving is the only available choice.

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    If British voters decide to remain in the EU, there will be no noticeable change to their lives. June 24 will be exactly like June 23, a very conservative situation. But what if the decision to leave is taken, quite possibly by a narrow margin? There will be drastic changes in the economy and many other aspects of life, turmoil and confusion possibly for many years to come. Is this option a natural choice for a conservative?

    There is a great scene in the old Western, the “Magnificent Seven”, where the eponymous gunmen, the defenders of a small village, are forced to surrender their weapons to the much more numerous bandits. The arch-villain asks them: “Why would men like you take on a job like this?” The youngest of the seven answers: “Fella I once knew in El Paso, one day he took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him the same question, ‘why?’ He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time.”

    I hate to think of the millions of conservative Britons, sober, hard-working people, who may one day think back on the decision they took on that fateful date, June 23 2016, the decision to disrupt their wonderful—to an outsider, at least—way of life, for no more serious reason, really, than that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Apostolos Doxiadis is a Greek writer. Among his works are the international best-sellers Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture and Logicomix.


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