Could Britain really vote to leave the European Union?
That question is rattling around the minds of the liberal intelligentsia, after a new poll from Lord Ashcroft put the Out vote nine points ahead of In.
Lord Ashcroft, like other poll purveyors, has work to do to rebuild his reputation after May. His research was, however, uncannily accurate when it came to Scotland. John Rentoul points out too that the peer’s methodology involves telephone polling and this has tended to produce worse results for the unionist side.
However representative the latest research is of public opinion, the possibility of Brexit alarms politicians and commentators. They live and work in London, a truly international city, and some would think nothing of hopping on the Eurostar for a weekend in Paris. Europe to them is Polish plumbers, Lithuanian au pairs, and cheap city breaks in Riga. I say this not to demagogue but to contrast these cosmopolitan attitudes with those elsewhere in Britain. Out there in the country, the EU is a tougher sell, associated with immigration, refugees, human rights and metric martyrdom. Lived experience versus received wisdom.
The source of liberal London’s confusion is that they have only encountered nationalism in very small doses. Nigel Farage on Question Time every other week is tough going but not quite the same as having nationalists dominate your political landscape for a decade. That is why the Scottish experience has to be understood to appreciate how national sentiment and grievance politics can shift large slices of public opinion in relatively short spaces of time.
In all likelihood the English will be tempted by nationalism as the Scots were. As with the Scots, the enticers will not be tattooed skinheads or aled-up pub patriots but polite, civilised men and women, the sort of people who move in next door, invite you round for dinner and it turns out they get their sofa throws from IKEA too. They will not talk about foreigners or national superiority. Instead they will say it’s about fairness, democracy, common sense and why can’t we make decisions for ourselves. Their animus will be reserved for the enemy within, the fainthearts who lack confidence in their country and people. Stop talking down Britain, they will rebuke, then protest in sincere offence when referred to as nationalists.
The Yes campaign did not achieve 45% of the vote by kilts and claymores but by the chuntering bonhomie of Alex Salmond. The English became “Westminster” and independence a route to “social justice”. In the run-up to the EU referendum, look out for similar tactics and language. Daniel Hannan, not Peter Bone; Kate Hoey, not Nigel Farage. And don’t be surprised if Vote Leave turns streetfighter in the final weeks. (Where the Scottish nationalists cast doubt on the future of the NHS, the Brexiters might confect a coming immigration crisis.)
And when the gloves do come off, expect deja vu as the BBC comes under fire and unionist politicians are subjected to online abuse. For all their assurances that they are different, benign, civic, in the end a nationalist is a nationalist.
As with Scottish nationalism, there is a reasonable case for British secession from the EU. Unionists should accord their adversaries the respect they deserve. EU political institutions are less transparent and accountable than those in Westminster and it is more plausible to contend that Britons are culturally different from French or Germans or Italians than it is to claim substantial distinctions between Catlowdy and Canonbie. Euro-unionists mustn’t dismiss their opponents’ outlook as inherently illegitimate. There is more than one way to be a European.
Avoid the clodhopping stupidity and unforced errors of the Better Together campaign. Keep the tone upbeat and positive as long as you can. No wild scare stories; no Lego; no simpering housewives telling people to eat their cereal. No John Barrowman. Joe Pike’s Project Fear should be handed to every pro-EU politician, adviser and spin doctor as a cautionary tale.
The EUref is not a straightforward rerun of the indyref but these and other lessons are on hand should the Remain campaign wish to learn them. If they don’t, they might be in for more polls like this one.