I went out EU referendum campaigning today, in my adopted home city of Glasgow.
I’m a passionate and instinctive Europhile (hard not to be, when one of your parents is French, aka an ‘immigrant’). I’m also convinced by the vast majority of factual argument, most of the conjecture about the future, and all of the socio-cultural claims (of which we’ve not heard enough) for remaining in the EU.
But I live in a bit of a bubble – in surveys, c90% of staff in academia, and c80% in publishing, intend to vote to stay in the EU. (Though seriously – if you’re one of those 10% or 20%, could we have a chat before Thursday, please?!). Like many, I’m profoundly depressed by the level of political rhetoric, and general knowledge of what the EU is and does, and the all-too real possibility that the UK might vote to leave on Thursday (even if Scotland does not).
So with just a few days to go I decided I had to do a bit more than speak within my very largely pro-EU circle of friends and colleagues. I headed out onto the streets, leafleting with Stronger in Europe. My afternoon started off in Sauchiehall Street (the city centre), then onto Byres Road in the West End.
(If you feel as strongly as I do, sign up if you haven’t already – there’s still a chance to make a difference, up to election day itself.)
I won’t rehearse any of the arguments here (I’m sure we’ve all read innumerable opinion pieces by now, my new favourite from J K Rowling – see some words from that at the end of this piece). Instead, then, here’s some reflections on my leafleting experiences:
On the whole, this was a fairly heartening experience – first of all the solidarity of the other volunteers. They were largely young (I’d guess I was the second oldest at Sauchiehall Street, although one elderly man, out campaigning with walking stick in hand, had my admiration in the West End). Judging purely from accents, they were from a variety of geographical backgrounds.
Second, I’d say well over 80% of those who told me which way they were going to vote (or had already) were for remain. Of course, it’s much more likely for people to say that to someone who is on their side, but still, it confirmed that Scotland is very likely to show a clear majority to remain. These voters were a mix of young, middle-aged, and old(er), and seemed cheerful about their decision (if occasional fearful of the outcome). I managed to press a few leaflets onto people even if they’d already decided (or postal-voted), in order that they could try and persuade someone else. One man asked before I even offered if he could take a few, in order that he could give them to other people he wanted to convince.
Third, there was one man who said he was very firmly voting leave. But he was courteous, clearly didn’t want to waste my time (unlike some others who wanted to leave), and went on his way. There was a level of politeness in the interchange that I appreciated, and I wish was more present in political debate.
To the negatives, then. Some (approximately a third) shook their heads or looked ahead in stony silence as I tried to speak to them. Of course, this could have been for any number of reasons – sometimes you just don’t want people interrupting you as walk along the street. Some declared their allegiance to leave and quickly moved on (though I nonetheless managed to give some a leaflet).
I asked some why they were voting to leave. This was depressing, with no well-articulated argument put at all. The initial answer was sometimes not even a reason (‘I don’t like Europe’). One at first appeared slightly more understandable (‘I’m from Ayrshire – it’s ruined fishermen’s livelihoods’). But with nearly all of this very small sample, it then very quickly moved onto ‘Immigrants’, or ‘The country is too full’. To one man saying the former, I said, ‘My mum is French. She’s an immigrant.’ He barely missed a beat. ‘Oh I don’t mind the French, or the Italians…’ ‘Oh, I see. Not that kind of immigrant.’
Several people said they wouldn’t be voting. One, he thought: ‘they’re all the same. Suits. I don’t believe in any of it. We should go back to basics.’ I didn’t pursue that conversation.
Three men, smoking outside a pub. Two claimed not to vote (apart from in the Scottish Independence Referendum). One said he was moving to Barcelona soon. I suggested it might be useful to vote in.
Two young female students, who claimed not really to know much about politics though they were happy to chat to me. They weren’t really sure if they were registered, or if so where they could vote.
Finally, what I found most depressing – rather, heart-rending – was speaking not to those who wouldn’t engage, or wouldn’t vote, or were – to be frank – racist. No, it was those who couldn’t vote, and in particular those from other EU countries. One Polish woman, highly articulate, who has lived here for 10 years, has a mortgage, a career, a life… She was worried. Really worried.
There’s still a few days to convince each other to vote, and to vote to remain. I’m not sure how convincing any of my discussions were this afternoon, but I’ll keep trying, and will be out tomorrow again. I urge you to do so too, in whatever way you can. As J K Rowling puts it at the end of her piece ‘On Monsters, Villains and the EU Referendum’:
‘In a few days’ time, we’ll have to decide which monsters we believe are real and which illusory. Everything is going to come down to whose story we like best, but at the moment we vote, we stop being readers and become authors. The end of this story, whether happy or not, will be written by us.’