We are all of us to some degree prisoners of our own experience. Experience may teach, of course — may counsel or illuminate. But it is also capable of trapping us. We make connections in our imagination between what we saw then and what we see now, and when these memories are of a personal kind and unavailable to others, we’re inclined to treat them as something special: our private mentors. Sometimes that mentoring will be inspired, sometimes mistaken.
I once (in the months before last year’s general election) decided to block my ears to opinion pollsters warning that the Tories were hopelessly bogged down, and instead followed my own hunch. That in this case my leap in the dark paid off will forever incline me to prefer my own judgment to the advice of the polling industry. But next time, of course, I may be wrong.
For Margaret Thatcher, the consequences of sticking to her guns and ignoring every prophet of doom when Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands, enormously — I believe permanently — reinforced her confidence in her instincts and her contempt for backsliding male colleagues. Whether that intensely personal episode ultimately proved a wise counsellor when it came to other -political decisions may be argued both ways.
I have not made up my mind whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain in, but I’ve a pretty good idea how, in the quiet of that polling booth, I shall decide to vote. That sounds like a logically absurd sentence but it’s an honest description of my mental state. Something is warning me to be wary of the Leave campaigners. The wariness is visceral rather than intellectual.
Doubtless on the day I shall be able to rationalise, but at bottom this will have been an emotional decision. It is informed by a personal experience: my boyhood memory of the months leading up to Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain for white Rhodesia. The memory is not of the ebb and flow of the argument, but of the people, the human types, and the mood. Experience says: ‘Do not trust this kind of mood. Do not trust these human types. Do not trust anger. Do not trust resentment. Do not trust simplicities. Do not trust wild, defiant certitude.’
The two decisions — ‘Should Britain leave Europe?’ and ‘Should Rhodesia leave Britain?’ — are actually tremendously different: superficial similarities break down on closer analysis. Rhodesia was standing (in retrospect anyway) against an unstoppable tide. There was, it was to prove, no way a white-supremacist state could forever resist black majority rule. ‘Not in my lifetime’ was Mr Smith’s phrase and it regularly drew huge cheers from white Rhodesian audiences, but of course it was always a hopeless ambition.
To leave the EU is not a hopeless ambition. Vis-à-vis Europe, Britain is in an infinitely stronger position than was Rhodesia against the whole world. After a British exit we shall not be at daggers drawn. Nobody is proposing economic sanctions against us if we leave. We face no danger of a terrorist war from within. A decision to withdraw from the EU might be suboptimal but (as David Cameron himself allows) it would not be catastrophic. Not in the way Rhodesia’s exit proved.
So, no: any lessons I draw from experience are not related to supposed political or economic parallels between the two cases.
But what I remember as if it were yesterday is the type of individuals and commentators who were so very sure Rhodesia must break away; and the tenor of their argument: the timbre not the rationale, that slight but persistent hint of hysteria. If an argument’s eyes can bulge, their argument’s did.
Smith and his Rhodesian Front colleagues were not stupid (well, they weren’t all stupid) but they were obsessed. Their argument was shot through with anger, resentment and bitter nostalgia. A sort of sourness trembled on their lips. Everything they said, everything they thought, was said and thought as though in the presence of a great hovering evil which they could see and which they were urgently intent on making us see too.
Their cause inhabited them, in the way some noble but many misguided campaigners have been inhabited. They could not keep off the subject. Dissent or question infuriated them. Whatever the topic, they seemed to find ways of relating it back to their great, overriding purpose. But the purpose did not feel positive: it was all about resisting something, stopping a ticking clock, turning back a tide.
This, perhaps (for me, as a 16-year-old), was the defining characteristic of the Rhodesian ‘leave’ campaigners, the taste that still lingers in my mouth from those sharp memories. Though on paper the case for Rhexit did include some positive arguments about the opportunities, vistas, horizons for a Rhodesia that had sovereignty, when you looked at the people advancing it you were looking at haters, resenters, men who bridled at the way things were going. In a colloquialism that had not yet been coined, I felt the vibes were negative. It was thin-lipped stuff.
I distrusted this. I distrust it now in the men and women who are as a matter of fact making the case for quitting the EU. I know the case could be made differently. I know a warm, optimistic person, comfortable with his times and positive about the future, is logically capable of campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union. It’s just that as a matter of fact I don’t see many examples.
Perhaps we could extend to the world of politics the Dawkinsite theory of the propagation of memes, and contend that arguments choose their protagonists, rather than the other way round. If so, I don’t care for the protagonists that the argument for leaving the EU has chosen. They remind me of Ian Smith. And look how that ended.