The Car Crash Referendum?

A CSPP member, under writer’s name Miratus, takes a look at the campaign ahead of the vote on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

Fear and loathing seems to be reaching titanic proportions as we reach the last week of the EU referendum campaign.  It certainly has not been pretty. And last week, when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, with the murder of Jo Cox, they got an awfully lot worse. Both sides have promised a more sober tone, but I’m not holding my breath once we get into the home straight.

As many have already commented, watching the two sides slug it out in the EU referendum, it is hard to avoid the sense of déjà vu given the parallels with the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014.

The Remain side are undoubtedly winning the war of ‘facts’ if we take the various forecasts from a variety of independent and not so independent experts as evidence. However observations about the negativity of the Remain campaign, and its similarity to the No campaign of 2014, suggest that both campaigns have battled with the same problem of how to construct a clear narrative to bind those ‘facts’ together into an unanswerable case.  Just as No was shy of arguing for a positive conception of being ‘British’ and of ‘Britishness’ (apart from when Gordon Brown came in right at the end), so Remain does not even attempt to argue for a vision in which the British become absorbed into a new European polity as Euro-citizens, and what a good prospect this would be. The problem for Remain, as was the problem for the No Campaign, is that if you spend the whole campaign saying the plans of the other lot are ruinously expensive, you are sort of conceding that if wasn’t for the cost, they would otherwise be desirable. Here’s a thought, let’s say for a minute that the Treasury, the Bank of England, the IMF etc had all said that in fact leaving the EU would be financially neutral. What would the Remain case have been based on?  Jeremy Corbyn’s vision? If not, whose?

Looking at the Leave side, you would think they should have been bludgeoned into the ground by the sheer weight of the economic guns bombarding them. But the Leave campaign succeeded early on in framing the narrative of the campaign around opposition between the people and the ‘elite’. This seems to have been very successful in neutralising what should have been a knock out blow from Remain – the overwhelming consensus amongst economists and financial institutions that leaving the EU would deal a heavy blow to our prospects. Far from helping Remain, the endless procession of experts pronouncing economic doom simply seems to have stiffened popular resistance to being told what to do.

In Scotland, where ‘euro-scepticism’ has been less pronounced, the Remain campaign seems surprisingly lowbeat, whilst a vigorous Leave campaign combines ex-Labour MP Tom Harris, Jim Sillars and ex-Tory MSP Brian Monteith, who are running a sparky and upbeat campaign as insurgents. Despite their best efforts, the SNP establishment are not finding it very comfortable arguing for the status quo, and the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties seem to be rather quiet.

Across the UK, as in Scotland in 2014, there are uneasy bedfellows on both sides created by a question which does not sit easily with traditional left/right allegiances.  Currently we have on the one side David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon together with the massed forces of the British establishment attempt to face down a coalition consisting of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Dennis Skinner and the Morning Star. It’s an unequal battle in many respects, but just as in the Scottish referendum the underdogs have the excitement and the passion.

Even if Remain wins next Thursday, in a way whatever the result Remain have lost. I know of people who have or are voting Remain purely because of fear of the economic consequences of Brexit, not because of any love for the EU or any faith that it can improve or be reformed. In the Scottish referendum the lack of a clear narrative didn’t, in the end, prevent the No campaign from prevailing, but it did prevent the issue from being settled, as the post-referendum political landscape testifies. And of course, the issue of immigration, and accusations of racism, create a dark and ugly sub-text to this referendum (mercifully missing from the Independence referendum). Commenting on the issue of free movement the Morning Star (a supporter of Brexit) this morning had this to say:

“Corbyn and former archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams are right to observe that suggestions that Britain is full are “unfounded.” But people in many areas who see and experience acute daily pressure on the services outlined above could be forgiven for believing such claims. Being suspicious of the effects on their lives of what the rich and powerful are doing does not necessarily make them racist or xenophobic.”

 For many years in the UK political discussion about immigration levels have been regarded as toxic and beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. In that policy area, too, the narrative is now changing, despite UKIP home goals like that infamous poster last Thursday.

Just as in 2014, so in 2016 short term scary economic ‘facts’  may well win out against a coherent narrative that appears to pose greater risk. However the longer term political frame will be reset nevertheless. Long term guerrilla opposition to the EU from Conservatives and dissident Labour politicians, energised by the campaign, may well leave the rest of the EU regretting a Remain vote. And who knows what the electoral consequences of a Remain vote may be across the UK, given what happened in Scotland after the No vote?

On the other hand, a narrow win for Leave, let’s face it, throws all the cards up on the air as far as Scottish politics is concerned. The SNP may or may not call another referendum just as their dream of a seamless transfer to full member status of the European Union dies.  And whilst currently polling indicates that Brexit may not present an immediately hopeful prospect for another Scottish Independence referendum, if the economic consequences of Brexit turn out only to be half as bad as predicted then in a couple of years who knows what the mood could be like in Scotland, with voters in England held responsible for the woes of leaving the EU.

The Remain camp are fighting not just for a Remain vote, but for their own political careers. This vote about more than our membership of the EU. Increasingly it is looking like a Leave vote could pretty much destroy the UK political establishment as we know it, but the thing is, so could a Remain Vote. Either way, things are going to look very different on the 24th June.

Centre for Scottish Public Policy
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