The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union will be held on June 23, so much of what I write here in mid-May may be falsified by intervening events. At this mid-point, however, the campaign seems to have settled into a surprisingly stable pattern.
Downing Street (which for practical purposes is HQ for Remain) initially expected that it would establish an early commanding lead over Leave with an artillery barrage of attacks on a range of vital issues. But only one of those issues reflected an optimistic European theme: namely, that David Cameron had brought back from Brussels a reform package that would safeguard Britain from future excessive regulation in a freer and more flexible Europe. And that was laughed out of court when Cameron’s reform package was revealed to be both trivial and reversible by European courts. It now barely features even in the speeches of loyalist cabinet ministers.
That has left Remain dependent on a series of arguments that are less pessimistic than outright defeatist in a campaign that even its supporters label “Project Fear”. Its central theme is that Britain is too small and unimportant to survive as an independent state in a dangerous world and that to believe otherwise is neo-imperial nostalgia. Accordingly, when the campaign opened a few weeks ago, Remain supporters deluged the voters with a series of predictions that Brexit would mean losing cheap air fares, losing second homes abroad, losing millions of jobs, losing inward investment, losing various amounts of money per family, losing national security guarantees, losing intelligence on terrorism, losing control of immigration, and losing anything that had popped into the speaker’s head a moment before.
Insofar as these claims raised anything of general intellectual interest, it was that a Tory Prime Minister was heading a political campaign that was passionately left-wing in its contempt for patriotism, its dismissal of the possibility that the British people could prosper through their own efforts, and its assertion that salvation was to be found only in undemocratic supra-national institutions.
Otherwise, most of the particular arguments—losing cheap air fares, for instance—evaporated as soon as uttered. Still, Downing Street thought that it had a strong runner in Brexit as a threat to Britain’s national security. Cameron declared in a major speech in early May that Brexit threatened the country with a third world war. This was so over-the-top that it discredited the larger argument completely. Commentators weighed in to claim that Cameron couldn’t possibly believe it himself. By degrees, the security argument vanished from Project Fear.
“Sovereignty v prosperity” has finally emerged as the battleground on which Brexit will be won or lost. Leave believes that sovereignty—the right of Britain to rule itself—is the key issue; Remain calculates that prosperity—the likelihood that Britain will do better economically inside the EU—is its strongest card. Both are probably right in their choice of issues that are both important and likely to swing voters in their respective directions. But each issue has a downside as well as an upside.
Leave’s stress on sovereignty is shrewd in that the voters overwhelmingly share its belief that Britain should be a self-governing democracy. Attempts by Remain to suggest that sovereignty is a pious fiction, unrealisable in a complex modern world and inferior to the EU’s raw power of which the UK controls one twenty-eighth, have fallen largely on deaf ears. It’s the old socialist argument, dressed in the latest Paris styles, that a share in collective power gives a man more freedom than does his individual right to decide for himself. Cameron might be attracted by these neo-socialist notions, but former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson is not. He has pointed out that a share in collective decisions is not very useful if you always lose the vote. Britain has opposed proposals in the EU’s Council of Ministers seventy-two times—and lost seventy-two times. It demonstrates that Britain’s interests are misaligned with those of its EU partners. So it will happen repeatedly.
The difficulty for Leave is that these arguments are somewhat theoretical. What they needed was an issue that illustrated the practical importance of sovereignty on matters the voters cared about. The issue that has come along is immigration. Almost all voters realise that Britain can’t control immigration from Europe as long as it remains an EU member. (Remain has made only half-hearted attempts to deny this.) And in mid-May the immigration issue exploded onto the front pages.
The Office of National Statistics, a semi-independent agency, published a report establishing that the official figures for immigration had been under-counting arrivals for years. Some 904,000 EU nationals have moved to the UK since 2010, for instance, but 2.25 million national insurance numbers have been issued, allowing them to work, over the same period. These figures are rising too. Soothing assurances from the ONS suggest that most of the previously unknown 1.35 million were short-term migrants likely to return home. But we don’t know how accurate that figure is—just as we didn’t know anything at all about them until recently.
All of which is likely to increase public anxiety over immigration, prompt a drift Leave-wards of voters whose attachment to Remain (according to a YouGov poll) is highly sensitive to immigration, and heighten the attractiveness of the sovereignty issue overall.
Remain’s high card is not very sophisticated. But it is traditionally a powerful one. It consists of the slogan, endlessly repeated: “Vote Remain or You’ll be Poorer—Maybe Much Poorer.” It’s a strong, simple, dramatic claim with only one drawback: simple political slogans only work well when they are telling the voter what he already believes to be true. As yet the voters don’t believe this claim; so the campaign has to convince people of it.
That’s not an easy task when the economy is humming along well, as it has been, and people are feeling pretty chipper. So Cameron has recruited all the great and the good, at home and abroad, in institutions from the IMF to the White House, to tell the people that Brexit would be a disaster of biblical proportions. It’s been an extraordinarily relentless campaign, and almost all the professionals believe that it will eventually sway voters towards Remain, but as yet the polls—more-or-less level-pegging—haven’t moved.
In an ironic twist, Remain’s best hope of convincing the voters lies in the British economy suddenly doing badly, since this could be blamed on the apparent approach of Brexit. Both Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney have laid the groundwork for this claim—and, more interestingly, for the event itself. The UK’s real economy (Mr Osborne’s responsibility) is showing signs of a slowdown across industry, services and construction; and the financial economy (Mr Carney’s remit) is showing a current-account deficit equal to an astounding 7 per cent of GDP.
This combination is risky under any political conditions; almost any exogenous event might topple the resulting shaky edifice. Even if such a reverse had developed while Britain was securely in the EU, it could still be blamed on Brexit both in advance and afterwards.
If no reverse occurs, however, then Remain will have to depend on the eloquence of the various notables who have been shouting ever more loudly that Brexit = Ruin. One should never underestimate the power of a united establishment, let alone several united establishments. Throughout the advanced world, including the Anglosphere, however, there is a series of populist rebellions against elites. Any impulse to rebel against these establishment voices, moreover, will be further encouraged by the condescending tone of some of them towards Brexit supporters, whom they assume to be ill-educated, primitive, semi-fascistic, ignorant of the issues at stake, or, as Cameron once put it, “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists”. It is as if our new masters don’t know they might be overheard.
Cameron is now plainly nervous that a straightforward appeal to the authority of the new establishments may not persuade its main intended audience in the Tories outside Parliament. They look like voting for Leave in a landslide. Accordingly, he is now trying to prod Labour and the unions into making a much stronger appeal to their supporters in the country who are thought to be either inert or vulnerable to a nationalist appeal from UKIP.
In return for their launching a bigger anti-Brexit campaign, Cameron is offering changes in government policy that include weakening his union legislation, supporting greater EU regulation of worker rights, and setting up an inquiry (long sought by the extreme Left) into police misconduct at the “Battle of Orgreave” during the 1985 miners’ strike. His commitment to Remain is pushing him ever deeper into Left political territory.
Many known unknown events—the collapse of border fences before a migrant rush in Central Europe, a sharp fall in the pound, the break-up of the Italian government over euro policy—might re-draw this picture of the Brexit battle between now and June 23. Since they are unforeseeable, so is the result. If Remain wins by a small majority, however, Cameron will owe his victory to Jeremy Corbyn and the Left and to his own leftwards turn. It will be a victory for a post-nationalist Left view of Britain carried through by a liberal Tory. He will therefore provoke a crisis in conservatism as well as in Britain’s sense of its own identity and future.
And after all the sturm und drang, it won’t decide Brexit.
John O’Sullivan is the editor of Quadrant