“What can I get you today, Sir?”
“I’ll have the maxi burger, please.”
“Do you want cheese on that?”
“Gouda, maasdamer, pepperjack or cheddar?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“There’s a choice? I dunno — pepperjack?”
“Do you want fries with that?”
“Ketchup and mayonnaise on the fries?”
“Not unless you want to feel the back of my hand.”
“Only if I must.”
“Dressing? Thousand island, French, vinaigrette or balsamic?”
“And can I get you anything to drink with that?”
“Got any beer?”
“Carlsberg, Becks, Paulaner or Foster’s?”
“Now you’re talking my language.”
I could punch the guy but of course he is only doing his job. It’s been a long, hot week and I am tired and irritable. I’m here in one of Herne’s premier dining establishments gorging myself on beer and comfort food.
It’s been a tough week at the university both for me and the students. Our university is the largest purpose-built concrete structure in Europe; it’s the only building apart from the Great Wall of China which you can see from space. On boiling hot June afternoons like this the rooms are like saunas and we all want to go to sleep.
They’re a nice group actually; they have their good and bad days and so do I. We tolerate each other admirably but today is a tough one for all of us. It is tough because we know that when this lesson finishes both they and I have a week’s holiday stretching out before us. The hands of the clock drag by in slow-motion.
The subject of the lesson is particularly boring: how to use modifying adverbs to talk about cartography. Alexei in the front row is barely awake. Beside the blackboard is a map of the United Kingdom. Alexei is staring at Scotland.
“Brian?” he asks.
“Would you vote for Scotland to separate from the UK now that they will leave the EU?”
This is more interesting than silly old maps and so the course of the lesson changes swiftly. I give my standard answer: I explain that I am not allowed to vote and I think that this is absolutely fair.
I explain that there is no such thing as a Scottish citizen and that although I am proud to be a Scot I do not have the right to decide the destiny of a country in which I do not live. Alexei senses I am dodging the question.
“But if you did live there?”
“Well if you’d asked me in 2014 when they had the referendum I would have said ‘no’.”
I give him an honest answer.
“I don’t know.”
He looks disappointed but this is the truth. Back in 2012 when the referendum process started I began forming my thoughts on this question. Come to think of it I’ve spent my adult life forming my thoughts on this question. All that happened in 2012 was that people started asking me what I thought.
There is a lot to take in: risks and benefits, economics, infrastructure, definitions of nationhood real and imagined, history and destiny, tradition and divergence. I watched every documentary and debate out there, I re-read my history books, I looked at comparable cases in Ireland, Spain and Canada and in the end I decided that, if — and only if — you asked me, I would have to say “no”.
It was the closest run thing you ever saw in your life. There were many good reasons to say “yes” and I respect all of those who were brave enough to take the chance when it was offered to them. In the end I am genuinely glad that I didn’t have to vote.
Now in 2017, some, but not all, things have changed. The economic argument is weaker but against that is the danger that Scotland will become the smallest province of the British Empire, its voice drowned out by our larger neighbour . The visions and expectations of our two nations are diverging and I like the sound of an outward-looking pro-European Scotland. On the flip side there is the question of theory and practice: does the EU really want to have us?
I explain all of this to Alexei and I am pleased to announce that neither he nor the rest of the group are looking bored any longer.
“But if you had to make a choice…”
And this is the thing, isn’t it? Wake up, I’m talking to you now and not Alexei.
If you had to make a choice. If you put a gun to my head. The answer “I don’t know” is never enough and yet I believe it should be.
Here are three questions for you. Try and answer them as best you can:
- What is the capital city of Chad?
- Who should be the next coach of Borussia Dortmund? (As a thank you to the old one for winning us the cup we fired him)
- Is there a God?
It is my belief that you could quite legitimately answer “I don’t know” to any of these questions without being thought of as a fool. Knowing the answer to the first question is unlikely to advance you intellectually. Having an answer to the second probably requires knowledge outside of your experience. This is the often the case in life and in such situations the wisest course of action is to say “pass”.
As for the third, well you’ve probably thought about it a lot. You may or may not have an opinion but if you don’t then that can hardly be attributed to lack of reflection. If you’ve weighed up the pros and cons and still haven’t come up with an answer then you can hardly be accused of idleness or ignorance.
Now try this question:
- Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
You may have an opinion and you are entitled to it. Then again, you may not. You may well have heard arguments from both sides and been unable to make up your mind. You are entitled to do this; in a modern democracy nobody should be putting a gun to your head.
The only problem is of course that “I don’t know” isn’t an option on the ballot paper. I think it should be. Politicians may not like saying the phrase but for the rest of us it comes perfectly naturally through no fault of our own.
Clearly it would be better if everybody made a decision but it is equally clear that many people will not. Many will have questions, conditions, reservations. It is consistent with the nature of modern life to ask questions; this is why waiters are rarely physically assaulted. Choice is anything but simple.
It is part of who we are. If you really want to know what somebody thinks then you have to ask them the question and wait for a response. 72.2% of the United Kingdom gave a clear answer in the Brexit referendum, 28.8% did not.
The 28.8% are well within their democratic rights. We often fire criticism at those who choose not to vote, we accuse them of neglecting their duty or neglecting fundamental privileges. I contend that this is short-sighted: They may well have chosen not to vote for the best of reasons. The Brexit referendum was supposed to be purely advisory after all
No democratic society can illicit answers by force and the wishes of those who remained silent must be respected. Nobody can be forced to give an answer; both British and European law prohibit this. And of course not every answer is a good answer. A well-reflected “don’t know” is surely a far better answer than a hasty “yes” or “no”.
As it is, the government is moving forward in accordance with the wishes of 17,410,742 out of the 65,479,862 people who live in the UK.
We have the right not to decide and we have the right to answer each question with a counter-question. Why is it that Scotland’s 1979 referendum was conditional on there being a sufficiently high turnout and yet Brexit was not? That would be one of the questions I would ask? What exactly do you mean when you say “leave”? On what terms exactly?
Pablo Picasso once said: “Computers are useless. They can only provide answers.” Answers are dumb –anybody can give them. They don’t even have to be right. Asking the right questions, now that’s the clever bit.
Election night tonight. Best of luck to everyone who puts their cross in the box and I hope your candidate delivers. And respect too for those that read through the menu and then decide to eat elsewhere.
The capital of Chad is N’Djamena by the way.