Yesterday (Saturday 20th February) David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union for June 23rd. Whatever the outcome there is little doubt that this is an era defining moment and certainly the key moment of Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister.
Obviously there is a relatively long time before the referendum itself and a lot could change. However I suspect that the result will be close; I honestly don’t know which side the coin will come down on. This blog isn’t so much about my own views on the referendum question but my mind is unlikely to change. I will be voting for Britain to remain a member even though, perversely, I’m not sure that’s the outcome I want. To explain;
We have been here relatively recently, or at least those North of Berwick Upon Tweed have. Just eighteen months ago Scotland voted to reject independence after a debate that was passionate and heated but proved a glorious street party for Scotland and a great boost to their economy. For better or worse, at least the rest of the UK is going to get some of that.
The Scottish referendum is key here because as we all know the side that lost the battle won the war. The SNP failed to convince Scottish voters of the case for independence but swept 56 of 59 Scottish constituencies in the general election that followed. Scottish voters shied from taking a step into the unknown but decided they wanted the most patriotic, pro Scotland party to represent their interests within the union. Nothing wrong with that.
The parallel with the EU referendum isn’t quite exact. The `out` campaign hasn’t coalesced around a single leader in the way that `Yes` in Scotland was always going to be about Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. There is going to be division between those who want to exit the EU as a pragmatic, libertarian decision (I’ll be generous and include Johnson, Gove, Duncan-Smith et al in this camp) and those who will make it a matter of tub thumping, intolerant nationalism (step up to the plate Nigel Farage who has of course been waiting for this for a long time and is unlikely to miss his moment). However the `in` campaign can hardly be complacent as David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn are hardly going to share a campaign platform.
Let’s envisage a scenario on June 24th when the UK has narrowly voted to remain in the EU. One can pretty much imagine the speeches from both sides. After all, we saw it in Scotland so very recently.The `out` campaign will be well placed to criticise every mis-step the EU makes and will be quick to pick up on broken promises when they occur. It’s in the lap of the Gods who benefits. Boris Johnson becoming the heir apparent to a lame duck David Cameron is the lesser of two evils. Nigel Farage is already as close to power as his French counterpart Jean-Marie le Pen was in 2002 and if he succeeds in dressing himself in the Union Jack he may be unstoppable. It is NOT improbable; Alex Salmond was once best known for being an occasional panelist on Call My Bluff and he rose to become First Minister of Scotland.
So in some ways a Brexit may almost be the progressive option. Cameron’s position would be untenable and somebody (most likely Johnson) will have to reshape a new UK within the Union. Labour may actually be able to position themselves as the genuine voice of progression.
Either way 23rd June 2016 won’t be the end. It will just be the beginning.
A final point. We are having a referendum because David Cameron promised one in his manifesto. He didn’t expect to end up in a majority government and having to deliver it. For keeping his promise he deserves some respect. But membership of the EU is not the most important issue in the political landscape. Far from it. The real national debate should be about the people struggling to earn a living wage and put food on their table. The scandalous geographical inequality in education. The vast estates in the North that have been devastated by thirty years of social neglect following de-industrialisation. What are the odds that these won’t be discussed at all (except of course when the SNP want to claim that they’re Scottish only issues as usual – couldn’t resist that)? I for one know the answer.