The British people are to hold a referendum on June 23 on whether to remain in the European Union or to leave it. It is a moment of truth. Throughout its existence, the EU has been claiming supra-national powers, at the expense of the Westminster parliament, common law, and a whole range of freedoms great and small, institutional and commercial and personal. Over the years, the sense has been taking hold of having to submit without the possibility of appeal to rising costs and diminishing benefits. A centralized state has imposed itself on 27 countries by means of a self-appointed bureaucracy, not representative government, creating all sorts of special interests that are indifferent even to fair play. Prime Minister David Cameron has negotiated in the capitals of Europe in the hope of obtaining reforms that would answer British dissatisfaction. He has landed himself in the awkward position of claiming that the resulting tiny legalistic changes justify voting in the referendum to remain in the EU.
The cabinet immediately split. Michael Gove, Lord Chancellor and hitherto one of Cameron’s political allies, argued with unmatched clarity and integrity the case for leaving. Half, perhaps more, of the Conservative members of parliament, are determined leavers. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, filled a page of the Daily Telegraph with an article entitled, “There is only one way to get the change we want — vote to leave the EU.” He makes the point that a vote to stay in would forfeit any influence the British might try to exert in the future: They would have complained about the EU only to fail to follow through.
The whole purpose of the EU has been the elimination of the nation-state, the social structure that European politicians held had caused the 20th-century wars. Yet while trying to free themselves from that structure, these same politicians support it for pretty much everyone else — Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars, Ukrainians, Georgians, Palestinians, Kurds. For the time being, the British who want out are equal in passion and commitment to those who want in. But one day the contradiction will be a factor in the wholesale collapse of the EU. The British referendum is a likely step towards the self-government that is indispensable when it comes to identity, democracy, and freedom.