- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

HAY-ON-WYE, Wales (AP) - Three weeks before they vote on whether to quit the European Union, many Britons feel lost.

Buffeted by alarming and contradictory claims about the disastrous consequences of their decision, some are seeking guidance in a muddy field in Wales.

One question - should we stay or should we go? - is dominating this year’s Hay Festival , an 11-day celebration of books and ideas plunked down outside Hay-on-Wye , a tiny town with a handful of streets and two dozen second-hand bookshops. Founded in 1988, Britain’s leading literary festival is a passionate (but polite) intellectual carnival, dubbed the “Woodstock of the mind” by former President Bill Clinton.

It draws prize-winning authors, world leaders, Nobel laureates and 100,000 booklovers to a sylvan site 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of London, and serves as a barometer of what’s on the minds of a big, middle-class chunk of British society.

This year, festival-goers have lined up to ask novelists, historians, scientists, politicians, poets and policy-makers from around the world: What should we do on June 23, referendum day?

Former American spymaster Michael Hayden, ex-director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, was emphatic.

“I think British security is better served by being in,” he told an audience at the festival, which runs until Sunday. And “speaking as an American … American interests are better served by Britain being in.”

Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist who exposed the inner workings of the mafia in his book “Gomorrah,” argued that leaving the 28-nation EU would be a boon for organized crime. He said Britain was already “the most corrupt place on Earth” because of criminal funds sloshing through its offshore tax havens and London’s financial district.

Saviano said leaving the EU would weaken the battle against financial corruption, allowing Mexican drug cartels and the Russia Mafia “to gain even more power.”

Steve Hilton, a former policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, provided a counterblast of pro-“leave” sentiment. Hilton, who advocates a “people-power revolution” against governing elites, wants Britain to leave an EU that he calls a body of “constraint and control and centralization.”

“Of course it’s true that there are risks if we leave,” he said. “But what I hate about this debate is when people argue that there are no risks if we stay.”

For some festival-goers, anxiety about the referendum has overcome a strong British aversion to being told what to do by foreigners. When President Barack Obama intervened last month to urge Britons to stay in the bloc, voters on both sides of the debate expressed irritation at his meddling. Now, though, many are actively seeking outside counsel.

Former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King was not surprised to find voters looking for enlightenment. He spoke for many when he said he has been “deeply disappointed, to put it mildly, at the tone of this whole referendum.”

“Both sides have been engaged in a public-relations campaign which insults the intelligence of voters by making wildly exaggerated claims,” King said.

The comment drew loud applause, as the referendum campaign has grown increasingly histrionic. Cameron has said that leaving the EU would plunge Britain into recession, embolden an assertive Russia and increase the danger of a world war. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the “out” campaign, compared the centralizing aims of the EU to those of Adolf Hitler.

King declined to say whether he favored remaining or leaving, pointing out that either view would make life harder for the current central bank chief, Mark Carney, who has already been accused of bias for saying a U.K. exit, or Brexit, would cause economic instability.

The festival draws a liberal, cosmopolitan crowd, and snap audience surveys at several events showed a large majority backing “remain.”

“I want to be part of Europe,” said Daphne Cotton, a social researcher from London. “I don’t want to be part of Little England, going its own way.”

A short walk away, lawyer Neil Barbour proudly carried a “no to the EU” bag through the narrow streets below Hay’s ruined medieval castle.

Barbour conceded that the bag had drawn “a few looks.” But he hoped that his long-held dream of Brexit was about to come true.

“We are governed by a foreign jurisdiction,” he said. “It’s been a passion of mine for years, to get independence back for our country - to get control back.”

Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at https://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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