9 June 2015

England will be torn apart by the EU referendum


A new princess gurgles happily in her crib, the sun shines heartily on the fields of England, Larry the cat lounges on the steps of Number 10, inside which sits a Conservative Prime Minister with an overall majority: peace is upon the land.

But in the Channel a storm has started to blow. It will quickly pick up, the wind rising ever higher, the sea growing choppier. Before long, the elements will combine to create a colossal, Hollywood-scale wave, which will, with an immense power, surge suddenly towards Albion.

From my northern fastness, I can see what’s about to happen all too well. We in Scotland were hit by our own tsunami last year, in the form of the independence referendum. It smashed over and into us, wrenching apart any sense of national unity, leaving in its wake an encrusted bitterness, a coarsened public culture, an uncivil war, Scot against Scot: Mad Macs. In the recent general election, 50% of voters here backed pro-independence parties. The other half didn’t. This, with separatism at its height, shows a nation cut cleanly in two. Each side barely tolerates the other.

It is now Greater Britain’s turn. Within a few years there will be a referendum on our membership of the European Union. I have been bemused and fascinated by the number of English people telling me in recent weeks that “it won’t be like Scotland” – that this will be a more sedate affair, will inspire less passion, do less long-term damage. Well, perhaps. But, as we Scots say, ah hae ma doots.

What was most extraordinary about last year’s independence vote was the turnout: 84.5 per cent, the largest since the introduction of universal suffrage in the UK in 1918. Many of those voting were people who had never before even considered entering a polling station. What happened? There was certainly a long, noisy, impassioned campaign. There was global interest beyond anything we’d experienced before, but beyond this were two key factors that I believe drove this historic level of engagement.

The first was timing – the referendum came along after a decade in which every significant British institution had suffered either a scandal, a crisis of confidence or a loss of purpose, from Westminster to the media to the City to the military. The ties that bind had never been looser, respect for the status quo never lower.

Second, people were asked an existential question: who are you? This is not nothing. You will want to answer. You will want to answer on behalf of yourself and your family and your nation. Especially when you realise that the answer really matters – no safe seats to consider, no popular or unpopular incumbent MPs, no First Past The Post system ensuring only a few marginals get all the attention. Every individual counts. This is the big one, for keeps. So: in or out?

Now let’s look at our looming EU moment. Before a date has been set, the Government is tying itself in knots. It’s plain David Cameron doesn’t really know what to do – his party, including his Cabinet, is split. This week, Conservatives for Britain was set up to campaign for an EU exit. They have already signed up 50 Tory MPs, and suggest they will secure at least half the parliamentary party. Mr Cameron first insisted that any minister who wanted to campaign for Out would have to resign from government, then changed his mind. This doesn’t suggest a confident grasp of strategy.

Anyone who has spoken to Tory ministers over the past five years will know how disenchanted many have become with the EU. Some have swapped to an Out position due to the restrictions European law has placed on their ability to act in office. What was once an argument made largely by the right-wing of the party has become increasingly mainstream.

Then there are the voters. In Scotland, much of last year’s campaign noise was made by a relatively small number of highly committed separatist extremists: the cybernats, who dominated social media, and those who used aggressive tactics against Unionists in public, on the streets and at meetings. This is what gave the referendum the unpleasant, confrontational air that lingers still. For cybernats, think Ukippers. Any trip below the line of any right-of-centre newspaper will quickly unearth a roiling, seething mass of anti-EU sentiment. These people hate the European Union just as passionately as the cybernats hate the UK, and they will make themselves known.

Next comes the newspapers – how will the Mail, the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph align themselves? If one or all support Out, it will be a powerful component in shaping undecided public opinion. And remember, the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum began around 30 per cent and ended up polling 45 per cent. The Out campaign already sits at around 40 per cent.

I have been struck all along by how much the campaign to break up the UK has in common with the campaign to exit the EU. The arguments are often the same – I love Britain/Europe but this is a matter of effective self-governance; Britain/the EU is a fading force and we’d do better outside; the current situation is set up to benefit the elites at the expense of ordinary people. The most disenfranchised and the poorest – the ones with the least to lose if such a seminal change is made – will be most susceptible to the Out arguments, as they were to the Yes case. The Outers can paint a Utopian picture of a wealthy, independent Britain with complete control over its own laws and decisions, forging lucrative new relationships with emerging economies across the world. They can shout meaningless words like ‘Switzerland!’ and ‘Norway!’. It’s much easier without the awkward reality of a historical record to defend, as the pro-EU and pro-UK people must. It’s easier to be passionately absolutist than cautiously nuanced.

And, ultimately, we are about to ask the people of Britain an existential question: who are you? They will know that their voice counts this time, and that the consequences of the decision will be enormous and era-defining. They will think about themselves, their family and their country. They will get angry with the other side. Some very harsh words will be exchanged. Tempers will be lost and relationships fractured. And afterwards, whatever the outcome, the losers will be very sore, for a long time.

Not like Scotland? Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.