Next week, the United Kingdom votes on whether or not to leave the European Union. More important than a general election, the outcome of the referendum will influence Britain’s political and economic fortunes for a generation. As the long and increasingly bitter referendum campaign nears its conclusion — and with opinion polls showing the result too close to call — British voters face an onslaught of progressively more preposterous claims from both camps.
A vote for “Brexit” would have huge political and economic ramifications for the U.K. and its former partners in the EU. Britain’s exit threatens to amplify demands for similar referendums in other EU states, where insurgent anti-EU parties are gaining ground, boosted by public anger at the political establishment after almost a decade of economic insecurity and intermittent crisis.
Victory for the Leave campaign would usher in years of protracted exit negotiations, with uncertainty negatively effecting financial markets, investment and the value of the pound. The inevitable weakening of the EU following a British withdrawal would be detrimental to the world. The EU’s emphasis on “soft power” diplomacy, social democracy and human rights, makes it an important counterbalance to the United States’ neo-liberalism and China’s authoritarianism in today’s multipolar and interdependent world.
Although public opinion surveys suggest the outcome of the referendum is on a knife-edge, a poll of political experts found a strong agreement that Remain will prevail. In the survey conducted by the Political Studies Association (PSA), 87 percent of experts predicted that Britain will vote to stay in the EU on June 23, with only five percent convinced Leave will triumph. Even if Remain does win, the referendum debate is exacerbating political tensions, both within the U.K. and between Britain and its European partners, that will not be easily reconciled after voting day.
Media coverage of the referendum campaign is focused on divisions within the governing Conservative Party. Perhaps inevitably, Prime Minister David Cameron is the main face of the Remain campaign, while his Cabinet colleague, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, is the central figure in the Leave camp.
Division over Europe has been an open wound for the Conservatives for decades, contributing to the downfall of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and undermining the premiership of her successor, John Major. By capitulating to demands for a referendum, Cameron hoped to definitely settle the issue of Britain’s EU membership, and in the process to stem the hemorrhaging of Conservative supporters and activists to the anti-EU UK Independence Party.
But in the heat of the referendum campaign, Tory-on-Tory attacks have become increasingly personal, with pro-EU former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke, for example, referring to Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump.” In Britain, as in many other places, comparisons to Trump are shorthand for bigoted, illogical and populist nonsense. Win or lose on June 23, some of Cameron’s backbench MPs are calling on him to resign, accusing him of lying about the economic cost of Brexit.
Anger at what are seen by some Conservatives as Cameron’s scare tactics could cause a backbench backlash even if Britain votes to stay in Europe. It would take the support of only 50 Conservative members of Parliament to trigger a challenge to Cameron’s leadership. The Sunday Times quoted one rebel Tory MP as saying, “I don’t want to stab Cameron in the back — I want to stab him in the front to see the expression on his face.” Far from healing divisions within his party over Europe, Cameron has deepened wounds by calling a referendum.
Labour, the main opposition party, would enjoy the current Tory death match over Europe if the EU referendum had not intensified the already wide ideological and cultural gulf between Labour’s leadership and the working-class voters whom the party was founded to represent. Labour’s elite is largely London-based. But the capital is economically and culturally detached from the rest of the country, especially from the less affluent areas that make up Labour’s core constituency. London’s vibrancy in part rises from its diversity. But many Labour voters are worried about immigration — not because they are xenophobes, but because of fears over jobs, wages and services.
The votes of marginalized working-class voters will be the determining factor in next week’s referendum. Although Labour’s leaders are almost exclusively backing Remain, a YouGov survey finds that among voters classified as working class, 50 percent support leaving the EU and only 36 percent support staying in. For voters deemed middle class, the figures are opposite. When asked to vote for the status quo, it’s not surprising that those with no stake and no influence feel unmoved. Predictions of economic apocalypse following Brexit do not resonate in communities where economic insecurity is already endemic.
Forces on the political right are dominating Britain’s referendum debate. The choice presented is between the xenophobic right’s anti-immigration case for leaving, versus the neoliberal right’s trade-focused appeal to remain. In failing to articulate a social democratic case for remaining in the EU, Labour’s leaders leave working-class voters open to the populist promises of Leavers. But it is working people who will lose most from Brexit. Although limited, the EU guarantees British workers basic employment rights. By echoing the Tory establishment’s message of post-Brexit economic doom and ignoring working-class voters’ concerns about unlimited EU immigration, Labour risks losing the support of its traditional voters well beyond the referendum.
Although the EU’s leaders are hoping Britain remains a member of the club after next week, even if victorious, Cameron will not receive a warm embrace from his counterparts at the next European Council meeting. By calling a referendum out of political expediency at a time of multiple crises for the EU, Cameron has drawn the ire of his colleagues.
Negotiations on Cameron’s demands for backing Remain took time away from dealing with more pressing matters such as Europe’s refugee crisis, Islamic State-backed terrorism and the Greek bailout. Britain’s perceived self-indulgence will make it harder for Cameron to win allies in future intra-EU negotiations. In the past, British prime ministers have used the prospect of a referendum on EU membership as a tactic to extract concession from European partners. This tactic will no longer work.
Whoever wins on June 23, all parties have been bloodied by the referendum campaign. The flayed corpses of Cameron and the Conservatives are a disincentive for future British governments to offer referendums, the most direct form of democracy. When the people speak, political leaders often do not like what they have to say. The most devastating impact of this referendum campaign may be that the people are never directly consulted again.
Tina Burrett is an associate professor of political science at Sophia University
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