Baffled by the Brexit? Nick Robinson on the Europe debate

It was Winston Churchill who fathered the idea of a United Europe, says the political presenter – and we’ve argued about it ever since

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Facts. We want facts. Please give us the facts. That’s the cry I hear again and again from people who feel assailed by claim and counterclaim about what it will mean if we vote to leave or remain in the EU. Many voters feel baffled, dazed and angered by the confident yet contradictory assertions of the two sides in this debate. “Come on, Nick,” people say, “you get this political stuff. What and who should we believe? Will we be richer, as Boris claims, or poorer, as Cameron insists if we choose to get out? Will Europe make it harder and more expensive to sell them stuff, or will they be desperate to carry on selling us their BMWs, cheese and wine? Will we get more control because we’ll be the ones deciding, or less because we won’t be sitting at the big table any more?”

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Let me tell you what I tell them. Sorry. No can do. I am not able to give you the answers you crave. “Why not?” I hear you ask. “Are you too scared to tell us what you know? Too fearful of being bullied by the rival campaigns? Too nervy of breaching the BBC’s impartiality rules?

“After all,” you might add if you were in a particularly ungenerous mood, “didn’t you get a bit of a kicking in the Scottish referendum?”

There would be no point me denying that reporting on a choice this big and this contentious is not without its problems and pressures. Both sides leap on any work or phrase or perceived unfairness, just as they did in Scotland. Now, as then, every headline, every word in a script, every guest booking is scrutinised for inaccuracy and unfairness. My Twitter timeline has already been filled by people declaring with certainty that they know which side I’m on. For now I’ve resisted the temptation to link up those who “know” I’m all for Remaining with those for whom it’s obvious I’m backing Leaving.

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Fear not, though: neither I nor my colleagues at the BBC will be bullied or neutered or lobotomised. There is another reason altogether that we can’t give you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the vital decision facing this country. The reason is this: there can be no facts about the future. Only predictions.

No journalist, no pundit, no expert can resolve these questions for you. Sure, we can tell you about the facts that underlie the arguments – what, for example, are the trading arrangements or immigration rules or budget contributions other countries which are outside the EU have with it. That, though, is not enough on its own to predict what lies ahead if we stay in or get out. Those claims and counter-claims are based, at best, on well-intentioned and well-informed guesswork and, at worst, on prejudice, exaggeration and spin. In the end this is a matter of judgement. Yours.

There may be no facts about the future, but there are some when it comes to the past. That’s why my producers and I have spent weeks trawl – ing the archives as well as talking to some of today’s political leaders for a two-part documentary, Europe: Them or Us, about just that – the remarkable story of Britain’s troubled relation – ship with Europe. I’ve been trying to discover why one question has divided the public, torn apart political parties, felled prime ministers and baffled, bemused and angered our neighbours for decades. The question is: does Europe mean “them” or “us”?

The ambiguity in our attitudes began with, and was embodied in, the father of the idea of a United Europe. He was not a Frenchman or a Belgian or a German, but the man who would go on to become the globally recognised and revered symbol of British exceptionalism: Winston Churchill. Long before the Second World War but with memories still fresh of the previous one, Churchill argued for a United States of Europe. As our wartime leader he proposed something unthinkable now – the creation of an “indissoluble union” between Britain and France with “joint organs of defence, foreign, financial , and economic policies”.

The British government signed up, rejecting only one part of the plan: a single currency. However, the French turned it and us down – not for the last time. After the war, Churchill once again argued that Europe needed to unite, though to this day historians still disagree about whether he saw Britain as players or spectators, partners or sponsors in the grand project he advocated.

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The leaders of postwar France and Germany wasted no time in pursuing the goal Churchill had argued for so passionately. His successors first sat on the sidelines and scoffed at the idea that Europe would ever get its act together. First the European Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community (EEC) were created. Next our politicians changed their minds and spent a decade pleading to join. Only to be rebuffed by the French again. Finally, in 1973, Britain did sign up to what everyone called the Common Market. Only two years later we were arguing about whether we should leave again in the first Europe referendum. In the four decades since then that question has felt unresolved.

Of course, my series cannot present a single agreed historical truth. Looking back, just like looking forward, involves judgements too. However, let me reassure you that if you watch you will not be forced to endure the yah/boo of so much of today’s debate. You will hear only from people who were there at the time – prime ministers, presidents, their ministers and advisers – about the decisions they took then. The decision we all face now is one of the most momentous the country will have taken since Churchill was at Number Ten. It won’t only determine whether we remain in or leave the EU. It could reshape politics for good. Lose the vote and few can see David Cameron, despite what he says now, able to continue for very long as party leader and prime minister. Win it, and there might be fizz for him and his backers on referendum night, but his party will wake up to a giant hangover on the morning after. Those who wanted to leave the EU won’t simply forgive and forget.

But why does this matter, I hear you ask? For this very important reason. Cameron has pledged to quit before the next election. He may be another casualty of Tory splits on Europe or he may go at a time of his own choosing. No matter. Changed leadership rules will mean that for the first time in this country’s history it will be the votes of 100,000 or so party members – not voters or, as in the past, MPs – who will choose his replacement and the next occupant of Number Ten.

Little is certain. Except perhaps this. If more people understood how we got to where we are now, they might find it easier to decide where we should go next.

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That is one fact I am happy to offer to you.