What’s Missing from the European Referendum?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, May 22nd 2016

As memory of the Scottish campaign fades, along comes another one: the European referendum. It is like the deregulated chaos of buses – first none, then a stampede!

We now have regular referendums. Scotland has had three, as has Wales, Northern Ireland two, and this is the third UK-wide vote. When they were first mooted in the 1970s they were called, particularly by MPs, ‘alien’, ‘unBritish’, ‘undermining of parliamentary sovereignty’, and the sort of things dictatorships do.

Since then the referendum has slowly become part of the Scottish and British constitutional furniture. There is even now an agreed set of rules in the form of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that allows for official ‘designated’ sides, and tries to create an equal playing field in donations and spending in the short campaign.

This phenomenon is not just British, but evident across Europe and US. There are many reasons for this. There is the decline in political elites, fall in deference, spread of communications, and emergence of issues such as constitutional arrangements, environment and ethical concerns, which transcend old left-right and class divisions.

The European referendum is a huge challenge that our politicians and public life doesn’t seem up to. Unless the UK votes for Brexit there is a chance that it won’t decide anything. What it is doing, as with the indyref, is framing and normalising Brexit – i.e. making the notion of a UK outside the EU seem an everyday proposition.

Some of the Remain camp have floated that a Brexit vote might not immediately lead to the opening of negotiations, instead being used to get a better deal from Europe. Now the Leave side, and people such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage are raising the prospect, if the UK votes to stay, of a second vote.

This debate like nearly all referendum campaigns isn’t just about the question being asked. It is about Europe for some and British self-government for others. But it is also about resentments against government, politics and elites, the economy, immigration, and hopes and fears for the future. The same was true of the Scottish referendum.

It has already had its fair share of tragic comedy and dodgy references. One aspect has been the hold that Hitler, the Nazis and World War Two has on the British imagination. This is obvious to anyone who has watched Fawlty Towers or ‘Allo ‘Allo!, but it never used to be so pronounced.

The first Euro referendum of 1975 contained little to no such references. A political elite who had either fought in the war, or remembered it, knew the need to be respectful to history, to the memory of those who died, and to a post-war West Germany that had changed.

There has been the rising spectre of World War Three, terrorism and ISIS – with David Cameron increasing the language threats to Armageddon levels. This is desperation, trying to get through to voters, and also the times of maximum Project Fear we are living in.

Both Remain and Leave camps are missing much: positivity, detail, a few salient facts. It was like this in the indyref  – but not to this degree. Instead, Scotland’s experience seems like a rich democratic exercise compared to now: one that was more like a polite vicar’s tea party by comparison with the most heated insults in this campaign.

Welcome to the world of post-truth politics – where the public clamour for facts and information and no one can agree a common set of figures. This produces the populist politics of people such as Boris Johnson, or worse, Donald Trump, claiming they can cut through the deceits of the political classes. Even the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, while very different from these two examples, can be seen in a similar light.

For all the noise and energy of the next few weeks the most likely outcome is the Euro vote will not decide anything. A narrow vote, say 55:45 to stay in, does not settle the issue. It doesn’t offer Cameron a reprieve, change the Eurosceptic nature of the Tories, or the likelihood of a Brexiter leading the party in the future.

There is even more than the Scottish vote, no status quo on offer. The EU in the form of the Eurozone is integrating and slowly becoming more synonymous with each other, leaving Britain on the outside of European decision making. Europe isn’t going away.

This is the age despite ‘once in a generation’ talk – of the neverendum. But it is possible that this may just refer to the EU vote before any subsequent future indyref. Baton down the hatches, the future is going to be a bumpy and uncertain ride.