25 September 2015

I’m going to stick my neck Out: Brexit will win the EU referendum

By Ryan Bourne

Polling by YouGov published earlier this week showed that ahead of the EU referendum, those “certain to vote to remain a part of the EU” led “those certain to vote to leave the EU” by 8 percentage points. One might expect this to worry an “Outer” like me. But no – a polling lead of such a low margin makes me extremely confident: Brexit will win the EU referendum.

I’ve participated in numerous debates on this question across the country in the past two years, and each followed a similar pattern. Whatever the starting vote, there was a swing to Brexit of between 10 and 20 per cent.

It would be tempting for me and my debate partners to regard this as a reflection of our rhetorical skill. But the full YouGov output this week shows that this ain’t so. In fact, there is a simpler explanation: those who are undecided or ‘soft’ supporters of either side are much more responsive to Brexit arguments than they are to the scaremongering of the Europhiles.

Why is this the case? First, the Europhile arguments are incredibly easy to dismiss or debunk within one sentence. The same doesn’t apply the other way round. Second, the Brexit arguments come with much more emotion attached.

So, “3 million jobs are dependent on our EU membership” they say. “No, jobs are linked to trade, not membership of a political union”.

Or “We wouldn’t have the clout to sign free trade deals with major economies”, they say. “Iceland, with a population the size of Croydon’s, has a free trade deal with China” seems to be a decent retort.

“We would still have to subscribe to the rules, but wouldn’t get to shape them”, they say. “Boo hoo, it doesn’t seem to do the US, Canada, Australia etc etc any harm”.

“The EU provides lots of money for science, research and development”, is the claim. “Yes, and we’re a massive net contributor to the budget – we could keep all that and cut taxes or increase spending at the same time”.

“The business community overwhelmingly thinks we should stay in”, they say. “74% of SMEs want Britain to take back power to negotiate our own trade deals and only 25% agree with the rationale for the Single Market – which is really a single regulatory system”.

“Being outside the EU would make us poorer”. “Um, Switzerland? Norway? The US? Do you not trust British voters to elect the right people?”

Every time I’ve seen a Europhile try to dodge these obvious retorts, they either take themselves into the cul-de-sac of explaining minute policies like the elimination of roaming charges or else try to go nuclear by talking about harmony and peace. In an era when Greek streets are filled with anti-German protestors, this is hardly convincing.

In contrast, Brexiteers can talk about big themes that people seem to like: democracy, independence, self-determination. “What exactly is it about Britain that makes you think we aren’t worthy of deciding our own fate?”, they can ask. They do so also from a position of being anti-establishment, which (as trends across the globe show) is all the rage. On this issue this trend is likely to be even more powerful: the EU establishment has been clearly inept at dealing with its own problems, whether its the Eurozone or refugee crisis.

For these reasons, I suspect those who suggest the electorate will cling to the status quo are wrong. The public won’t need to be convinced of a detailed plan for exactly what we do when we are outside, nor will the Brexit campaign have to rally around one. We are a mature democracy. We can have that debate at our next general election. And a good job too. As a classical liberal, I’d be loathe to endorse an exit based solely around clamping down on immigration. No, all Brexiteers have to agree on and show is that the EU constrains the window of political opportunities and that it is self-evident Britain can prosper outside.

This is, by definition, an optimistic case. It will be in sharp contrast to the fear of the Europhiles. And it will win.

Ryan Bourne is Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The Institute of Economic Affairs takes no corporate position on the UK’s membership of the European Union and its staff members remain hugely divided on this issue.