“Now. What I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
These are the opening words of Charles Dickens’ novel, Hard Times, spoken by the school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind. I first read this novel at a time when the abuse of our education system by Michael Gove and the coalition government was at its most aggressive and zealous, and these opening words summed up perfectly the misguided thinking that had formed the new national curriculum that was being imposed upon the nation’s children. But that’s another story! In more recent times, as I’ve watched, listened to and read the narrative that has unfolded around the EU referendum debate, I’ve had reason to reflect upon these words again.
There has been a demand, almost a hunger, for facts and information throughout the campaign. “How can we possibly know whether to vote leave or remain without reliable facts?” has been a very common feeling expressed in different ways by many people. This is entirely understandable, of course. Whenever we make big decisions in life we want to be fully informed. We want to know as much information as possible so that we can objectively make the best choice. Or at least the best choice as far as the available facts can guide us.
I’ve become less and less convinced, however, that this chasing after solid, reliable, objective fact is the right attitude to take when deciding how to vote in the referendum. The vast majority of us rely on high-profile politicians and/or the media to present the ‘facts’ to us, but they are the most unreliable of sources: most newspapers in this country are owned by wealthy individuals who present ‘facts’ in such a way as to pursue their own selfish agendas; the BBC has to be seen to be giving equal coverage to both sides of the debate, so it is obliged to give air-time to the most recent arguments from both the Remain and Leave camps, even if that most recent argument happens to be total nonsense; and of course the ‘facts’ that are presented to us by most senior politicians are so tainted by spin and personal ambition that we can’t even begin to rely on them.
It seems to me that the vast majority of independent, reliable and informed voices within the worlds of finance, public service, science, the arts and politics are encouraging us to vote Remain, and that is something we should take very seriously. No sooner has one of these voices told us that we should stay in the EU, however, than the Leave side tell us that they are unreliable, they can’t be trusted, or they’re out to get us in some way. I personally find it hard to believe in quite so many conspiracy theories, but we know nonetheless that organisations and individuals can be corrupt, spiteful or just plain wrong. So who to believe?
The problem with our endless demand for fact goes deeper than this, though. I suspect that when lots of people say “I just want to know the facts before I decide,” what they actually mean is “I want to be absolutely certain before I decide.” And chasing certainty is like chasing the wind. There are very few, if any things in this life that we can know with absolute certainty. The Bible teaches that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. In other words, no human being – no matter how intelligent or well-informed - can rely either on their own senses or their own intellect to be absolutely, one hundred per cent certain of anything! This is especially true when it comes to the results of a political vote, because we’re expecting ourselves to be able to foresee the future. Nobody can say for certain what will happen as a result of this referendum. There are risks if we remain part of the EU and there are risks if we leave, because we live in a risky, uncertain world.
So how to decide? If we can’t rely on facts, what can we rely on?
For me, it comes down to instinct, really. Of course we must listen to what various different people have to say, and we must take their arguments seriously. Of course we must consider and weigh up the evidence as it is presented to us, and do our best to make an informed decision. But when I go to the ballot-box on June 23rd, I’ll be relying as much on my instinct and gut-feeling as on anything else. And ever since this whole debate started, this is what that gut-feeing has been telling me:
By voting to remain in the EU, we are making a choice for co-operation, a choice for friendship, collaboration, and unity of purpose with our closest neighbours. It is a choice that has, on the whole, kept Europe peaceful and prosperous for the past seventy years. It is a choice that sends the rest of the world a clear message that, despite the inevitable frustrations and failures, we want to work together to try and tackle the biggest problems that we face.
Or we can vote to isolate ourselves. We can vote to reject collaboration and friendship with our neighbours, and instead set ourselves up in competition against them. And as we make a conscious choice to stop seeing those nearest to us as friends and instead start seeing them as rivals and competitors, it seems inevitable to me that tension and hostility can only increase. And I think there’s too much of that in the world already.
I’ve taken in quite a lot of the facts in this referendum debate. But rather than relying on them to inform how I vote, I’ll be guided primarily by my feelings about the type of world that I’d prefer to live in.