As Britons prepare to vote in Thursday’s referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union, polls suggest the race is too close to call. Perhaps spooked by the May 2015 general election, when the Conservatives pulled off a surprise victory even though months of polling had indicated that the two main parties were evenly divided, most pundits are reluctant to predict the result. Nevertheless, one thing is already crystal clear: The tightness of the race reveals the utter contempt much of the British public feels for the political class.
Sound familiar? It should. Mirroring the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, the British electorate seems to have abandoned rationalism in favor of sending a loud “screw you” to the kinds of people who make declarations about what is and isn’t economically and politically rational.
This extremism led to the death of Member of Parliament Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed in her district on Thursday. Her alleged killer, Tommy Mair, told the court, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Although a handful of leading Conservatives have joined the Euro-skeptic fringes of the party to campaign for Brexit (including Boris Johnson, whose support for the Leave campaign is often portrayed as an opportunistic bid to position himself to snatch his party’s leadership from anti-Brexit Prime Minister David Cameron), the vast majority of mainstream politicians are, like Cox, in the Remain camp. On Sunday, representatives from the business community, the trade union movement, and grandees from all the major parties signed an open letter calling on voters “to reject division, isolationism and blame” and “choose co-operation.”
Economic institutions ranging from the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain’s Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the Bank of England have warned of disastrous consequences if Britain departs the EU. The only party that is offering unequivocal support for Brexit is UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party—a populist group with only one MP, whose campaign is one long dog whistle about immigration.
The Leave camp’s most reasonable-sounding argument is around sovereignty—hence its slogan, “Take Control.” Brexiteers point out that for EU members, European laws trump national laws, which they see as an assault on British democracy. (It should be noted, of course, that not all of those European laws are undesirable—the European Union protects the rights of LGBTQ people and other minority groups.) But as the Economist pointed out, sovereignty is worthless without influence: “A country can be wholly sovereign yet have little influence. … It can be worth ceding … independence to gain influence.”
As one of the biggest economies in the European Union, Britain could wield more power in Brussels and Strasbourg if it were willing to make more of a commitment to the organization. Besides, walking away would not magically restore Britain’s sovereignty—it is party to more than 700 international treaties, including major commitments like NATO, many of which impose obligations the British Parliament could not easily escape.
More visceral—and more effective—is the Leave campaign’s appeal to voters who are wary of EU immigration. The day before she was killed, Jo Cox told the Guardian’s Julian Borger that her working-class constituents’ pro-Brexit views were mostly driven by concerns about immigration—including fears of a “supposedly imminent invasion of Turkish migrants across the Channel” stirred up by the tabloid press. (Turkey is not yet a member of the European Union, and its accession is by no means certain.) On Thursday, UKIP leader Nigel Farage unveiled a campaign poster that showed a long line of migrants and refugees with the slogan, “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.” The photo was taken at the Croatia-Slovenia border in October, “with the only prominent white person … obscured by a box of text.”
Free movement of labor is a key EU tenet, and migrants from most EU countries are also entitled to unemployment and welfare benefits once they settle in Britain. Long before the referendum date was announced, Cameron had promised to bring net migration to the United Kingdom below 100,000, a pledge he was unable to keep—the most recent figure was 362,000. But as the Economist pointed out, unlike most other EU members, “everyone entering Britain (except from Ireland) must pass through border checks” and Britain has largely avoided Europe’s refugee crisis. Besides, even if Britain left the European Union, it would “probably be required to accept free movement of people, as Norway and Switzerland are (both have proportionately more EU migrants than Britain).”
With a clear establishment consensus and such strong rational arguments in favor of Remain, the race really shouldn’t be so close. But perhaps there is cause for optimism. The xenophobia of the Leave campaign may be driving a shift toward Remain. On Monday morning, Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi defected from the Leave camp largely because of UKIP’s “Breaking Point” poster. And outrage over Cox’s murder is also said to be turning voters against Brexit.
Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum has the potential to destabilize the United Kingdom. A vote to leave the European Union would almost certainly stir up separatist urges in Scotland. Although an independence referendum failed in 2014, Scotland is overwhelmingly pro-Remain, and nationalists could reasonably kick up a fuss if they were forced to leave an institution Scottish voters value. And across the Irish Sea, some fear that re-imposing border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could revive hostilities after years of relative peace.
But perhaps the most troublesome aspect of Thursday’s referendum is that, in all likelihood, it will not resolve the rancorous rows over Europe. As Nick Cohen pointed out in the Spectator, “[E]ven if Leave loses, it seems certain that it will perform so well as to produce an existential crisis in both our main parties.” Arguments over Europe have divided the Conservative Party for decades. The referendum was supposed to put an end to that infighting, but if Britain is as evenly divided as the polls suggest, the wars over Europe could continue for much longer.