Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to supporters during a Britain Stronger In Europe campaign event at the Oval cricket ground in London ©Dylan Martinez/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Richard Dawkins: Ignoramuses should have no say on our EU membership—and that includes me

Brexit roulette
June 9, 2016
Read more: June 24th—the Conservative Party reacts to Brexit

“Are you an Inny or an Outy? A Keeper or a Brexiteer?”

“Well, at first I wanted to leave, to punish David Cameron. But then Boris came out as a leaver and I can’t stand his hair so I’ll be voting to stay in Europe.”

That is approximately the level of discourse which will momentously decide Britain’s future.

My own answer to the question is, “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me?”

I, and most other people, don’t have the time or the experience to do our due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues facing our country in, or out of, Europe. That’s why we vote for our Member of Parliament, who is paid a good salary to debate such matters on our behalf, and vote on them. The European Union referendum, like the one on Scottish independence, should never have been called.

I really did hear the following remark yesterday on television: “Well, it isn’t called Great Britain for nothing, is it? I’m voting for our historic greatness.” Actually it was originally called Britannia major to distinguish it from Britannia minor, the French province of Brittany. Later, “Great Britain” signified the union with Scotland, and distinguished the geographically larger of the British Isles from the smaller, Ireland. It has never meant “great” in the bombastic sense you imagine will justify your “patriotic” vote

Am I being elitist? Yes of course I am, and why not? Notice that I’m counting myself out of the elite. You want your surgeon to know anatomy. You want the pilot of your airliner to have cerebral knowledge and cerebellar skills honed by painstakingly many flying hours. You want your professor to be well read in the subject of her lectures. You want your plumber to know one end of a drain from the other. Why would you entrust your country’s economic and political future to know-nothing voters like me? At least I’m honest about my elitism. The leaders of both campaigns show their contempt for us when they debase the argument to the populist level of Hitler-invocation.

I recently was invited to attend an on-stage conversation between Bronwen Maddox, the Editor of Prospect and Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary. Hammond gave a polished performance, as would be expected of an elite politician. In the question session afterwards, I put to him a brief version of my above argument. He made the easy sarcastic retort: “There speaks the true democrat.”

I am indeed a true democrat, but we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. To call a referendum on any subject should be a decision not taken lightly. Foxhunting might have been justifiable plebiscite fodder. But to call a referendum on a matter as important and fraught with complicated and intricate detail as EU membership was an act of monstrous irresponsibility: the desperate throw of a short-term chancer, running scared before the Ukip tendency within his own party.

He may reap the whirlwind. Even if the referendum goes Cameron’s way, there will be a legacy of bitterness, stirred up by the yelling rhetoric on both sides: demagoguery inevitable when the audience is the whole country rather than parliament. My Scottish friends tell me there are still poisonous enmities that have not died down since the 2014 referendum there.

The EU referendum should never have been called, and Cameron must be kicking himself for doing so. But is that a reason to abstain from voting? Certainly not. We are where we are, and there’s no use wishing we were somewhere else. I shall vote. And I shall vote to stay in Europe, exercising the Precautionary Principle which is appropriate to anyone lacking the confidence to push for a radical change in the status quo. Better the devil you know, or at least the devil that seems to be working adequately.

Moreover, as I listen to advocates from both sides I notice that, for all my lack of expertise, I am qualified to judge that most of the arguments for leaving are emotional. The evidence-based arguments tend to be the ones for remaining in Europe, whether they come from professional economists, historians, business leaders or powerful foreign politicians.

President Barack Obama’s sober warning was widely resented as “Telling me how I should vote.” No, he wasn’t telling you how to vote. He was bluntly informing you—as he is well placed to do—that if you think America will step in and rescue you when you cut yourself off from Europe you are living in cloud-cuckoo land. And he was echoed by soon-to-be-President Hillary Clinton.

Whichever way the populist wind blows on 23rd June, Cameron should be held to account for his irresponsible gamble: recklessly playing Russian Roulette with our future.

Now read: Brexit would not damage UK security