EU Referendum: 2 Transitioners debate ‘In’ or ‘Out’

June 17, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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There is just over a week to go until the UK votes on whether it wants to stay in the European Union, or to leave.  It’s a monumental choice, and the polls are very close as voting day approaches.  It’s an issue that is generating a lot of debate and discussion across the country (and a fair amount of indifference, it must be said).  These debates are also taking place within the Transition movement, always fiercely home to a wide range of political views.  So today, we have brought together a Transition ‘Bremainer’ (Just’IN’ Kenrick) and a Transition ‘Brexiter’ (Al’EX’is Rowell), and asked to them to debate the issue.  To begin with, we asked them to introduce themselves, but also their values, their underlying worldview, so the subsequent debate makes more sense.  So, over to them… 

Image RemovedAlexis Rowell was given a Greek-European name by his mother, a French and Russian teacher. He was a fluent French speaker at 17, studied European economics at UCL and, thanks to a grant from the European Commission, studied “European Journalism” in Paris. After working for the BBC and The Guardian in the former Soviet Union, Alexis married a French woman – the future Editor of Le Monde – and moved to Paris. In 1999 he completed an MBA and then worked in a French technology company for five years. From 2003 to 2015 he was based in Camden and Lewes, where he was heavily active in the Transition and environmental movements.

On 14 November 2015, the day after the Paris attacks, he moved back to France to help out at COP21 and is still there. Alexis has been strongly pro-European all his adult life, but recently started having doubts about the EU because of the opaque and anti-democratic nature of its institutions, the power of corporate lobbyists in Brussels, the watering down of environmental and social legislation, and the destruction of Greek social democracy. Most of all, he wonders whether the English can ever be constructive Europeans. 

Image RemovedJustin Kenrick‘s father – a Church of Scotland Minister – moved the family from the Isle of Iona to just off the Portobello Road, Notting Hill, when he was 3, in order to help tackle its then notorious slums and deprivation. Although that was successfully achieved (partly by starting the Notting Hill Housing Trust and Shelter), it ended up with the Notting Hill of Hugh Grant and David Cameron… Be careful what you wish for. Justin became an anthropologist, active in the peace movement, in deep ecology, in restoring the indigenous forests of Scotland, supporting forest communities in Vancouver Island, and then in Africa which is where the focus of his work now is, working for the Forest Peoples Programme.

Living in Portobello, Edinburgh, he found the inspiring ‘think outside the box’ Yes movement as uplifting at a national level as the Transition movement at the community level, and as inspiring as anthropology. Anthropology as a way of engaging that insists on valuing others, on valuing different ways of being and seeing, and that objects to all political, cultural and personal projects that devalue, dehumanise and exploit others, and so devalue ourselves.


So, how to vote in a referendum called by a Tory psychodrama?  

In 2015 Cameron promised this referendum to secure UKIP votes for the Tories in their fraudulently-won election, assuming he wouldn’t have a majority and so it would never have to happen. Now the Tory psychodrama is demanding we play our part in it. And it’s distasteful. 

Progressives remember the IndyRef in Scotland and how Labour destroyed itself by arguing a No Fear/ establishment case rather than a Yes or No positive/ radical case. It wasn’t losing in Scotland that gave the Labour Party the shock that meant they allowed real debate and Corbyn streaking through to win, it was seeing how positive debate so utterly energised the Yes side in the IndyRef that led (just) enough Labour MPs to reluctantly nominate the “no-hope” contender who captured the “all-hope” swathe of voters. 

So how to vote in the Tory psychodrama that has it’s roots in public school self-hatred, where dominating others hides a learnt inability to love? 

We don’t want to say yes to their Greed-mongering (whether arguing to stay in an austerity EU, or to get out to replicate US inequality). 

We don’t want to say yes to their Fear-mongering (whether arguing Out as a proxy for hating foreigners, or In to maintain their status quo). 

If the Out side were arguing to get out so we can reject nuclear weapons, welcome refugees, ensure social justice (the argument being made by Yes in the IndyRef) then I’d be for it. But they aren’t. 

If we vote to stay In for positive reasons then, at a UK level, we need to support a radical Labour and Green push for democracy. One that can take over their psychodrama by making the links:

  • Lack of Democracy in the EU? Yes, but the UK hereditary head of state, anti-democratic voting system, unelected house of lords is even worse.
  • An EU run by austerity-mongers? Yes, but the UK leads the way on this.

Don’t just ‘Vote In’ but get active: Recapture the debate, Refuse the false choices. 


I’ve always defended the European Union on the grounds that it put an end to wars between France and Germany, that it brought hope to the dictatorships of southern and eastern Europe, and that it has created the biggest body of environmental and social law in the world. But despite that, I’ve decided to vote for Brexit. Not because of the arguments of the Batman villain leaders of the Leave campaign, but because I think the EU and the UK need a dose of what some have called creative destruction.

  • I want to see the UK break up and England get to grips with the idea that it is no longer a “great” power. My hope is that England will conclude it is a medium-sized power in Europe which has to collaborate constructively with its European partners.
  • If the English vote to take the UK out of the EU, then, hopefully, the Scots will have a second independence referendum and this time they won’t be fooled by Project Fear. And I think the Scots will make great Europeans because they know they can’t go it alone. 
  • I’m sick of the English tail wagging the European dog. I think Europe wouldn’t be so excited about pandering to corporate interests, and watering down social and environmental laws, if the English were no longer in the EU. Europe will be better off without the English until the English learn how to be constructive Europeans. 
  • I think Europe needs serious reform and Brexit might just be the kick the EU needs to restructure itself along more democratic lines. I respect the views of Caroline Lucas, Yanis Varoufakis and John McDonnell, but I don’t see why the EU will have any reason to change if the British vote for the status quo.

I admit it’s a risk but not, I think, as much as the leaders of Project Fear Mark II make out. At worst England will muddle along on its own. At best Brexit will spark a creative and optimistic rebirth of English and European democracy. 

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Leaving the EU right now won’t usher in a period of ‘creative destruction’. Thatcher’s coming to power didn’t spur radical change, it spurred ‘social destruction’, and left us struggling to get half-way back to treating each other decently decades later.

Progressive politics in Scotland pushes for self-determination with a welcoming internationalism, to trust in ourselves and others. As Transition has long argued: ‘Creative construction’ is the way forward. No one else will make this world better for us, and making it worse won’t make it better.

The reason Syriza, Corbyn, Sanders, and Scotland’s Yes have done so well, the reason Trump triumphed and the far right advances in Europe, is because people are sick of a status quo, sick of a ‘business as usual’ continuing its unequalising planet-destroying society-destroying logic. No wonder folk want out, but out of what?

To vote Out of the frying pan would be into the fire. Out of the austerity waging Troika bearing down on Greece and into a state – the UK – which has been the prime European driver of austerity.

The drive for ‘Out’ is the drive to end the free movement of peoples in Europe, to end the social and environmental rights that inconvenience the profit racketeers, rights that have emerged from citizen pressure and because Europe is bigger than Murdoch or Microsoft.

Voting out of the UK to better engage with the world made complete sense in Scotland.

A UK Out vote will be a clear route to independence for Scotland, but it will also dramatically empower the UK-elite, and that is worse for us all than a tactical opportunity for independence. Above all, Yes voters want independence from the UK-elite, hence a big majority for In in Scotland.

But how can we make Voting In a reaffirmation of solidarity?

  • By condemning rather than standing with the Tories who are making the ‘In’ case,
  • By understanding rather than condemning the voters who look to Vote Out, and suggesting that this ‘Out’ is a deliberate distraction from the ‘Out’ we all need.


This is not a vote for another Thatcher. The UK already has a more destructive government than Thatcher’s. Thatcher never tried to eliminate state education or dismantle the NHS or destroy the BBC. Thatcher never tried to do away with the concept of social housing or remove the welfare net entirely. Thatcher never privatised anything like as much as the Cameron government. Yes, she kickstarted all that came after her, but Blair, Brown, Cameron and Osborne have presided over so much worse. That’s the status quo in the UK – the most socially, economically and environmentally destructive government in living history.

We have no idea what will happen after Brexit, but the break-up of the Conservative Party is a possible consequence. And even it doesn’t break up, it will be riven by the EU debate for years. With a majority of 17, it’s already struggling in Parliament. After this referendum it will be unable to do anything, whoever leads it.

So there’s likely to be a general election after Brexit. To me that represents an opportunity.  

There’s also likely to be a new Scottish referendum. That also feels to me like an opportunity – both for Scotland and for England. Scotland should quickly return to the EU where it will be a constructive presence. England will work out what, why and who it is and, hopefully, will return to the European fold in due course.

Finally, Europe will have to take stock after the English have kicked the British out of the EU. That feels like a third massive opportunity.

The status quo offers nothing except more of the same – socially divisive governance by the Westminster elite, and an undemocratic, pro-corporate Europe. Why would anything change if we vote for the status quo?

The trouble with this campaign is that both sides are peddling Project Fear and it’s hard to ignore it. My sense is that you’re against Brexit because of its leaders and supporters, because of the supposed risks and because you worry that Britain will become even more right-wing afterwards.

But I’m in favour of Brexit because of the opportunities it offers.

What do you think?  How are you planning to vote?  Do share your thoughts below…

Justin Kenrick

Justin is an anthropologist and activist from Edinburgh. He is a member of Extinction Rebellion Scotland. Since 2009, has worked with the Forest Peoples Programme, supporting communities to secure their community lands and determine their own futures.

Tags: Brexit, Transition movement