United Kingdom

Brexit or Bremain?

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Prime Minister David Cameron holds a Q&A on the European Union referendum with the staff of PricewaterhouseCoopers on April 5 in Birmingham. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

At a march for "Health, Homes, Jobs and Education" on April 16 in London. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

London Mayor Boris Johnson addressing supporters at a rally for the "Vote Leave" campaign on April 15 in Manchester. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader. A former critic of European integration, he now supports it. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

With the referendum just two months away, public education-led engagement with the issues of Brexit remains tardy because politically disparate groups read its merits or demerits differently.

ON April 16, an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets in London in protest against the Conservative government’s cuts in public services and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and his government. The demonstration —called by the People’s Assembly, a platform of political groups, trade unions, charities and anti-war groups—is believed to have been one of the largest anti-austerity processions organised in London in recent years.

Significantly, there were no demands raised by the demonstrators relating to the referendum that is just two months away and whose outcome will impact on issues such as jobs, health, housing and economic growth—all matters of urgency and focus for the People’s Assembly.

The lack of popular engagement in the United Kingdom with the issues that the referendum raises is striking, but it also illustrates the confusion and uncertainty in the public mind over whether the U.K. would do better in the European Union (E.U) or outside it. When asked to answer the referendum question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” how many people are currently equipped to make an informed choice?

Very few, if the opinion polls are to be believed. While the polls suggest that the support for the Remain (in the E.U.) and Leave (the E.U.) camps are just about equal, one-third of the respondents say they are undecided.

Of political debate between parties and rival camps, there has been plenty, but this has not been communicated to the public in an intelligible and convincing way. One reason for this is perhaps because Brexit—or the campaign for Britain to exit the E.U.—has never been a tested proposition, so there is no experiential basis on which the Brexiters can rest their case. For the Remain campaign, however, simply warning voters of the risks of the unknown hits the panic button.

The debate over Brexit has been reverberating in British politics for several decades. Its origins go back to the 1970s when Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. In the 1974 general election, the Labour Party promised to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership and hold a referendum to remain in the EEC on these renegotiated terms. The referendum was held in 1975, and the majority opted to stay within the EEC.

The fears over the E.U.’s growing influence on the domestic economy did not go away. In the eyes of its critics, the E.U. and its allied organisations have since grown into a bloated and slow-moving bureaucracy that impinges on domestic policies in a way that is not commensurate with the monthly monetary infusions into the E.U. that membership decrees.

The issues around Brexit relate to jobs and investment, immigration, social protections and sovereignty. The supporters of Brexit oppose the open borders and free movement policy that is an integral part of E.U. membership and has allowed a large influx of workers from the less-developed countries of Eastern Europe into the U.K. seeking work. The refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe will not impact the U.K., Brexiters claim, and the country will be able to decide its own immigration policies.

They also claim that the U.K.’s contribution to the E.U. budget would create a saving that could be productively used in the country. Last year, Britain paid £13 billion into the E.U. kitty, but it also received £4.5 billion of savings, leaving its net contribution at £8.5 billion.

Britain would not be constrained by the E.U.’s legal structures and would be free to carve out its own laws relating to human rights or social welfare and labour provisions.

The E.U. today is a single market without any export or import tariffs levied on member states. Over 50 per cent of the U.K.’s exports go to E.U. countries. The Leave camp says that Britain can and must negotiate its own trade agreements with the countries of the world, and that secretly negotiated transatlantic treaties such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will not apply to it.

Finally, the Brexiters argue that the bottom line is the sovereignty—economic and political—of the U.K. and its right to craft its own future.

There are equally compelling reasons on the Remain side, including those raised by the Labour Party and British trade unions. The entire area of social and legal protections governing labour standards are hard-fought rights that must be protected and not thrown away.

If one reason why public education-led engagement with the issues of Brexit remains tardy is that the issues are so complex, the other is that the line-up on each side of the divide comprises politically disparate groups that read the merits or demerits of Brexit differently.

Take the Remain platform. It was to counter the Eurosceptics in his own Conservative Party that Cameron last year undertook a series of negotiations with E.U. leaders on “reforming” the E.U. in a way that would give the U.K. a greater say in its own affairs. The favourable terms that he claimed he extracted from the E.U. did not convince his critics, but with the deal in his pocket, he took the next step—of fulfilling his 2015 election pledge of holding a referendum.

The Remain side has the backing of the majority of Conservative and Labour Members of Parliament. A former critic of European integration, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, now supports it, not because he believes the E.U. is not in need of reform, but because he believes that the fight must be conducted from within. Leaving the E.U., he said recently, would result in a “bonfire of rights”. He was referring to the rights of the workplace and that would be lost if Britain were to leave.

Alongside the bulk of the Labour and Conservative parties, the major trade unions and the Left-leaning Scottish National Party (SNP) support Remain. Large businesses, banks and investment firms strongly back the Remain campaign. Clearly, the reasons that bring the Labour and the Conservatives together on a platform are likely to be far removed from each other, and so they are.

Ranged on the other side are the Conservative Party Eurosceptics led by the London Mayor—and a prime ministerial-hopeful—Boris Johnson, former Education Secretary Michael Gove, the former Employment Minister of Indian origin Priti Patel, and former Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith. Also on the Brexit side are placed the far-Right nationalist parties, the most notable among them being the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage. The Brexit side also includes some of the more radical unions, the Trade Union Socialist Union and the transport union RMT. They support Brexit, but for very different reasons compared with UKIP and the Conservatives. The Left unions believe that Britain should be free to focus on its own issues, like reforming the National Health Service. Further, membership of the E.U. forces Britain to support treaties like the TTIP.

The political compact that groups in both the Remain and Leave campaign for is tenuous at best, with instability stitched into it. There is no unity or meeting of minds between the partners in the two camps, and a common campaign is therefore ruled out.

Hard to predict

It is this political dissonance that makes the referendum so hard to predict, says Peter Kellner, political commentator and former head of the well-known media research and poll group YouGov. Drawing attention to the example of the 2014 Scottish Referendum, he says: “If you look at referendums around the world, the great majority of times what we know is that the status quo gains ground in the final days of a referendum campaign. The reason is clear, and would all else be equal would probably apply to Britain on this occasion.”

Until two or three weeks before a referendum, people do not apply their minds to the issues involved. During this period, if they are asked whether they would like the current state of affairs to continue or prefer change, they would say they want change. “As you get nearer the day of decision, people start asking themselves a different question, not ‘Am I happy with the status quo?’ but ‘Which do I prefer, the status quo or the proffered alternative?’ And when people start looking at the proposed alternative, they often see risks and uncertainty. And therefore the status quo, even though not widely liked, becomes preferable and less threatening than change,” says Kellner.

Kellner, however, cautions against blindly applying these principles to the British referendum, as there are several factors unique to the referendum that could minimise the status-quo pull. YouGov polls have shown a demographic pattern. The over-60s tend to support Brexit, while the under-30s are overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the E.U. While these two tendencies would normally have cancelled each other out, the over-60s usually come out to vote, says Kellner, whereas the under-30s do not.

Kellner argues that the outcome could also be affected by a sudden and cataclysmic event or development. A flare-up of the refugee crisis, a terror attack in the U.K. or the continent, or even a sudden economic shock could push people into voting, and voting to leave.

On the fallout of the vote, there are many likely scenarios, says Kellner. If Britain votes to leave the E.U., “Scotland, will unquestionably vote to stay in, and this may unleash demands for a second referendum in two or three years, which will create a degree of uncertainty. If a referendum is held and uncertainty persists, then Scotland will certainly vote to leave the U.K.,” Kellner argues.

If there is a narrow vote to stay, he adds, like 53 or 54 per cent to stay and 48 or 49 per cent to stay out, “provincial England”, where the Brexit sentiment reigns, will see London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland —which are expected to vote to remain—as the spoilers. If that happens, “I think you can see a real set of tensions erupting,” Kellner forecasts. “I reckon that you need a remain vote of at least 55 per cent, which will mean that provincial England would not have voted decisively to remain for that particular post-referendum fear to die down.”

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