Why it might not be all right on the Euro-referendum night

Tim Oliver / Jun 2015

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Nobody should take anything for granted when it comes to Britain’s vote to stay or leave the EU. Tim Oliver discusses how many of the mistakes and inaccurate assumptions that have overshadowed recent votes could be repeated with the EU vote and lead to Britain leaving the EU.


A British referendum on its EU membership vote was not something many in the EU (and some in the UK) wanted. A renegotiation and referendum are seen as an unwanted headache for a union with enough already on its plate. An exit would be unprecedented, opening a Pandora’s Box of problems for both sides.

Some pro-Europeans may now seek comfort in analysis that argues that when all is said and done the British won’t actually vote to leave. They’ll be buoyed by some polling data, arguments that Cameron is the best Prime Minister to secure an ‘in’ vote, that British businesses will be behind membership, that UKIP will lead a shambolic and divided ‘out’ campaign and so forth. Given what is at stake it pays to take a more cautious analysis.

Do you believe pollsters anymore?

Polls might point to an uphill struggle for the ‘out’ campaign, but we should all be cautious of taking polls too much for granted after the polling farce of the 2015 UK general election (the most polled vote in UK history). Pollsters also made a bad call over last year’s Scottish independence referendum. They correctly tracked the growth in support for independence, but the final result of 55:45 was much wider than many had thought in the final weeks. Despite the few polls in the closing weeks of the independence referendum, there have only ever been a few that point to Scottish independence. By contrast there have been numerous polls pointing to a vote to leave the EU.

Will Cameron secure a renegotiation?

It’s not clear if Cameron can secure much by way of a renegotiation. Britain’s EU debate is often blind to how the rest of the EU must agree to its demands. The rest of the EU wants to see reform, but survey the member states and you find limited sympathy for a UK that can appear to be blackmailing them. What they will offer is therefore unclear. The crunch area of free movement of people in particular looks set to cause tensions throughout the EU. If Britain’s 1975 renegotiation is anything to go by then Britain will get largely token changes.

Will the British public believe in Cameron’s renegotiation?

Nobody should assume the British people will swallow another token renegotiation. Eurosceptics, the media, academics, perhaps even some supporters of an ‘in’ vote (those uneasy with the nature of the renegotiation) will shine many lights on and through the deal. When in a 2011 referendum the British people rejected AV they did so in large part because the referendum turned into a vote on the popularity of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, but also because they recognised that AV – to quote Nick Clegg himself – was a ‘miserable little compromise’. After the experiences in Scotland, voters are also now likely to see through any last minute commitments in the face of a rising ‘out’ vote.

Is Cameron the best Prime Minister to win a referendum?

Cameron is hailed as the best man to lead the UK through a referendum because he can guarantee a large proportion of the Conservative party and its supporters will follow him in a vote to stay in. Yet he is a prime minister who has played fast and loose with the unity of the UK and the UK’s membership of the EU. He governs with a majority of 12. He led a lacklustre election campaign that seemed to win by accident. He has struggled to hold his party together over Europe, making repeated concessions to Eurosceptics. Finally standing up to them may split his party and lead to a leadership challenge. His concentration could turn to holding his party and premiership together more than holding the UK in the EU. It is unclear whether he will bind ministers through collective cabinet responsibility, or punish those reluctant to back fully any ‘in’ campaign. If his position becomes exposed then expect leadership hopefuls to sense danger in backing him and the ‘in’ vote. Other parties may back off if they sense a danger from tying themselves too closely to the leader of a losing campaign. This was one reason behind Labour leader Ed Miliband’s reluctance to get behind Nick Clegg in the AV referendum.

Will ‘in’ or ‘out’ run the most shambolic campaign?

Both campaigns will struggle to define a clear message and strategy thanks to political differences, personal dislikes and financial problems. The ‘in’ campaign is likely to break-up as soon as the referendum is concluded. UK pro-European campaigns have a record of struggling to exist let alone campaigning effectively. Similar problems beset Scotland’s unionist campaign. There has been much speculation whether the ‘out’ campaign would be better off not relying on UKIP and the one-man show of Nigel Farage. But UKIP can provide some single-party unity that if played right could mirror the SNP’s role as the core of the independence movement. The ‘out’ campaign may struggle to find the grass roots movement that drove Scotland’s independence campaign. That said, UKIP has shown that it can sometimes reach out to disaffected voters by presenting itself as a party apart from the Westminster elite. Like the SNP, the ‘out’ campaign could also be buoyed by the campaign, coming to see any defeat as a tactical as opposed strategic one. UKIP will likely continue to grow, fuelled by factors that are not just about Europe. Left wing Eurosceptic groups, until now largely hidden in the UK, will be given attention thanks to their rejection of what they see as the EU’s imposition of neo-liberal agendas on the whole of Europe.

Who will be better at selling an unknown?

The ‘out’ campaign will struggle to set out a clear agenda for a post-EU Britain. Even UKIP is vague about what relationship it wants the UK to seek. This does not mean the ‘in’ campaign will be in a stronger position. The ‘in’ side will have to await Cameron’s renegotiation deal and not all may back in completely. Some ‘in’ supporters – especially on the left – will be uneasy with any deal that limits such things as workers rights. The ‘in’ campaign may resort to a repeat of ‘Project Fear’, the term applied (especially by their opponents) to the approach taken by unionists in Scotland of arguing about the unknowns and dangers of independence rather than making a positive case for staying. This is in no small part down to the larger unknown of what it is that the EU itself is, ‘ever closer union’ being a vague aspiration.

Who can win hearts and minds?

Scotland’s pro-union campaign relied largely on facts and figures to back the case for remaining in the UK. Its lack of emotional appeal was a key weakness. When it comes to the EU, banging on about trade and jobs can be effective but only gets the pro-EU side so far. Britain’s political debate has long yearned for more than a commitment to the EU. Arguing Britain should accept a reduced place in the world doesn’t work as an optimistic vision to be sold to a people that still embrace a global identity. Ideas of ‘independence’ or ‘freedom’ from Europe might be completely overblown in reality, but they play to deep national desires. Growing English nationalism means using the term ‘Little Englander’ will turn hearts against the ‘in’ campaign. Arguments the EU is a project to create peace won’t work when the Cold War let alone the Second World War are distant memories. Eurosceptics will also appeal to the heart by arguing you can love Europe – embrace a European identity that ranges from food and sport to philosophy and science – while opposing the EU.

Can you bank on the business community for support?

Britons might not be sold on the idea of ‘ever closer union’ but even some Eurosceptics are uneasy at the idea of leaving the Single Market. At the same time, problems in the Eurozone, Europe’s relative decline and emerging markets mean the EU is no longer the economic future it appeared in the 1970s when Britain was the ‘Sick man of Europe’. Britain’s decision not to join the Euro does not appear to have cost it as heavily as some once warned. Business support is therefore no longer as united as it was. Some business backing could actually be harmful to the ‘in’ campaign. The City of London might be vital to the UK’s economy, but it is viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Small and medium sized enterprises, which today make up the majority of the UK economy, do not rely as directly on the links the single market creates. If inward investment is not clearly affected by fears of a Brexit – as has so far been the case – then we should expect people to be sceptical of any economic warnings.

Will the media support an ‘in’ vote?

Just as the business community is no longer as overwhelmingly in favour of UK membership, so too is the UK media. A print media beset by declining sales will continue playing to a Eurosceptic agenda which portrays Europe as a hostile other. Some titles may pinch their noses while they urge their readers to vote to stay in, but some of their columnists will not hold back. Local newspapers, still widely trusted, could be easily overlooked. When it comes to online media, one only has to read the comments sections of most online discussions on EU stories to witness how prolific ‘Cyberkips’ can be. The role of twitter or other online campaigning can be overplayed, but its growing role leaves Eurosceptics with an added edge.

Will the British people be patronised?

But surely the British people will see sense once they wake up to the horrible predictions of what would follow a Brexit – of 3 million jobs gone, of a Britain doomed to be stripped of its UNSC seat, of London sliding into irrelevance and a property slump. There will of course be costs from an exit. But the warnings can be deeply patronising and appear over the top. Pro-Europeanism can be associated with an aloof, metropolitan elite living in a bubble of their own, detached from the reality of the daily struggle of the average British man or woman. No nation’s citizens like being told what to do by other states or an elite who think that only they know best. The British are no exception.

Will the referendum really be about Europe?

All referendums run the risk of becoming votes on something else and the EU vote could be no exception. Talk of holding the vote in 2016 instead of 2017 reflects a desire to get the issue out of the way while Cameron still enjoys something of a honeymoon. Holding such a vote towards the middle of any government’s time in office risks turning the vote into one on the government’s – and in particular, Cameron’s – popularity. But 2016 might not be possible if the Lords delays the referendum bill or the EU refuses to agree any speedy renegotiation. The day chosen may itself affect the result thanks to anything from bad weather through to an unexpected event. Finally, have the political class fully understood what it is that the British people are angry about with regard to the EU? Is the key issue immigration, trade, sovereignty, suspicion of foreigners or anger at the dysfunctional nature of the UK’s political system? UK political parties have often misjudged what has been driving Scottish nationalism. They could do the same over Europe.

Will Scotland be a factor?

The SNP does not want to see Scotland forced to leave the EU by a UK-wide ‘out’ vote. Nevertheless the vote could provide the SNP with the reason to call another independence referendum, should Scotland vote in favour of remaining in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to leave. The SNP will also be uneasy at forming part of a grand-alliance with those UK parties it accuses of neglecting Scotland. The possibility of Scotland splitting from the UK if the UK splits from Europe may not lead some – largely Conservative – politicians to reappraise their opposition to the EU. The connections between Euroscepticism and English nationalism mean that some in England would welcome an England separated from Europe and Scotland.

Will European events sink a British vote?

The EU today is not something that can be sold with much of a positive image. If a Grexit comes about and the EU struggles to cope then any UK ‘in’ campaign may find itself overwhelmed by hostility to staying in what can appear to be a deeply dysfunctional union. Britons might underestimate the extent to which Britain can separate itself from such events, but there could still be a strong desire to reject any close relationship. It may not take any cataclysmic event to influence the vote. Smaller disputes over the budget, controversial new laws or policy, or questionable behaviour in the EU’s institutions and leadership would be jumped on – as they have long been used – by the ‘out’ campaign as evidence of the EU’s inherent flaws.

Who gets to vote?

Recent headlines that ‘immigrants’ would be denied a vote in the referendum (except Commonwealth and Irish immigrants) highlighted tense feelings on both sides of the campaign about the inclusion of EU citizens, seen as highly likely to vote to stay in the EU. The UK is home to several million citizens from other EU state. The potential influence of their vote may not be as big as some might believe. The same might be said of voters who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years (and are therefore excluded), and 16 and 17 year olds who some would like to be given a vote, as happened in Scotland. But if the vote is a close one then the government may rue the decision to exclude these people. A similar decision to exclude Scots living elsewhere in the UK from voting in Scotland’s independence referendum may have cost the unionist side crucial votes. Excluding these groups has setup a potential fight with both the House of Lords and some other EU member states, potentially delaying the date of any referendum.

Will it settle the issue?

The European question is about more than whether to be or not to be in Europe. Referendums rarely settle issues that are this complex. As with the Scottish referendum it merely provides a temporary way of managing an issue. Had Scotland voted to leave the UK what would have followed would have been decades of bitter debates about implementing separation, the meaning of sovereignty, managing shared responsibilities and coming to terms with changing identities. An EU referendum is unlikely to be any different, especially if the majority is a slim one. Britain could easily face another referendum sooner rather than later.



Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver

June 2015

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