In the century of summers since our troops stood in the damp trenches of the Somme waiting to go over the top, we Brits have always trusted our instinct to help Europe through crisis rather than hide from it. This instinct is not the product of some patronising altruism, but rather enlightened self-interest.
In 1914 we chose to fight Prussian militarism, while at the same time protecting our own imperial needs. In the 1930s, we heard the siren call of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt rhetoric and gave it short shrift. Like successive extremists of left and right, Brits rejected something that would unbalance our easy way of life. Similarly, as Hitler threatened, the British eventually trusted their instinct to fight rather than pander, though only when they could bear the dilemma no longer.
It would have been easier not to take a stand, just as it would have been easier not to protect Europe during the Cold War, when all our financial resources were needed to protect our crumbling economy. In all cases, the British assessed the pros and cons coldly and decided that our interests aligned with the greater interests of humanity.
And of course, we hope that they still do.
This approach leaves a great deal of room for cynicism. Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to Britain in 1914, said that nothing gave an Englishman greater pleasure than to discover that his country’s interests matched those of humanity at large “and where such a congruence does not exist, he does his best to create it”.
Now, faced with a choice that both the Leave and Remain side agree is momentous, we are being asked again to choose between helping with, or hiding from, a stumbling European experiment that is not clearly in our interests, but with which our interests certainly align. We are being asked to make a distasteful choice between sticking with a very unappealing status quo or going against our instincts to help and by doing so, help ourselves.
We are being asked to trust one vision of Britain or another, and the fact is that it is hard to trust either.
The Remain campaign has stretched trust to breaking point with theatrical visions of economic and political ruination; Leave has moved from attempting to present a vision of British strength through independence to concentrate on what many think was always its motivation – a fear of migrants coming to our shores in uncontrollable numbers.
Remain has rolled out an impressive array of supportive experts, from the IMF and the Institute of Fiscal Studies to President Obama and an array of Nobel Prize winners and business chiefs. Leave has countered with the extraordinary statement by Michael Gove, holder of the office of Lord Chancellor, a role occupied by some of the greatest minds our nation has produced, that “this country has had enough of experts”.
Apart from the inherent absurdity of a man elected and promoted presumably because of some personal expertise dissing experts, Mr Gove was factually completely wrong. The Edelman Trust Barometer showed this year that the most trusted people in the UK are either “academic or technical experts”, who hold the trust of two-thirds of the general population, compared with a little more than a third who trust “government officials” such as the Lord Chancellor.
The Trust Barometer, the largest survey in the world of how people view the institutions and individuals who rule their lives, also showed how keenly this referendum and its central (if embarrassing) issue – immigration are taxing British tolerance and understanding.
The two factors that stood out most clearly in a special British supplement to the research as reasons that we might trust our politicians more were first, “more honesty in government communications” and second, “better management of refugees and migrants”. In both cases, Brits have not been well served by their leaders.
The performance of Leave in recent weeks suggest that the opinions of experts are indeed less trusted in this debate. Perhaps it is because they have been adduced by politicians of all sides in a way that seems untrustworthy to the public. CEOs, also heavily used by both sides, are barely more trusted than politicians, according to Trust Barometer research.
The missing voice, which is highly trusted is what Edelman categorises as “people like me” – the ordinary person in the street. The Leave campaign has been avowedly populist; Remain has not. Neither has used ordinary people as more than extras in their cast.
But if we are tempted to call a plague on both their houses, how should we vote? In my view, this is where we should look back on what our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did and follow them – they at least are people we can trust.
And what they did was, in successive crises that confronted Britain from the direction of our continental neighbourhood, roll up their sleeves and help others so they could help themselves. They did it with their blood, sweat and tears and with the sacrifice of those they loved.
All we have to do is put a cross on a piece of paper.