Despite the high drama and close polls, there is good reason to think Britain will vote to Remain, writes David Tuckwell.
Britain has never been at ease with the European Union, as a concept or an institution. British hostility to the EU is the strongest in Europe and stretches back centuries.
For the large part of three centuries, the distrust has owed to strategic geography. Until the Second World War, the major concern among foreign policy architects was that a united Europe would tilt the balance of power in favour of Germany or France. Accordingly, Britain switched between supporting Frederick the Great in the Seven Years War, to neutrality in the Franco Prussian War, to supporting France in the First World War.
Things began changing, however, after WW2. Having witnessed two total wars in a quarter century, and with business wanting access to a wider European market, British opinion shifted in favour of integration, especially among the Oxbridge class that runs Whitehall.
Today’s drama began in earnest with the 2015 election, when Britain’s smooth PR-trained Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership. The promise was made as a sop to the nationalist right as Britain, like other EU countries, has witnessed a rising tide of nativist populism post-GFC. Cameron’s politicking worked, and his Conservative Party went ahead to win its first parliamentary majority in decades.
But having called the referendum, Cameron now needs to win it. With the vote set for tonight Australian time, polls are suggesting it’s a toss-up, and the PM is being blasted for making a political error of historic proportions.
Loud warnings are being issued by the heads of the Bank of England, the Trades Union Congress, and the International Monetary Fund that Brexit will devastate the economy. Intellectuals are crying that Brexit, without a European counterweight, will leave the UK further at the mercy of America. The Left are warning Brexit will let the far right in.
But will Britain leave? Despite the theatre and the drama, there are good reasons to believe Britain will choose to Remain.
The first major reason is that Brexit is mostly working class-driven; it always has been. In 1945, then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee said the UK must not join the EU as “the Durham miners won’t wear it”. Today, polls — and there have been a lot of them — have consistently found that the poor want to leave while the rich want to stay. The polling is supported by academic research which finds working class communities want to leave the EU.
But why does having a working class base augur poorly for Brexit? Because in unequal societies, like the UK and US, poor people disengage from politics. Much has been made of the fact that working class voters have abandoned the Labour Party since the 1980s. Less noticed has been the abandonment of politics generally, including Brexit. As a Financial Times report on Birkenhead captured things: “most working-class Britons favour leaving the EU. The challenge for the “Leave” campaign is to persuade this group to turn out.”
The second major reason is big business, which overwhelmingly supports Bremain. A poll carried out by the Institute of Directors found 43 per cent of big business executives thought Brexit was a “threat” to business, whereas only 9 per cent thought it was an opportunity. Big businesses, such as Goldman Sachs, have opened their vast treasuries and donated to the Bremain camp. Other businesses have threatened to send their headquarters and offices (and thus the jobs) overseas and instructed their staff which way to vote. They have also threatened capital strikes and currency devaluations.
The third major reason is informational. It is impossible to say what exactly the consequences of Brexit would be, for the British or the Europeans. It’s impossible to know what a Brexit would look like or on what terms Britain would leave. In this thick fog, the majority of the mainstream media has come out in favour of Bremain. So too have the executives of the three major political parties: Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat.
The vote is fast approaching. And in any event as large as this it is silly to pretend to know an outcome for sure. But as with the 2015 election, there is good reason here to doubt the polls and look instead to the bookies.
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