Reflections of a referendum fence-sitter

"This referendum matters more for the shifting contours of British politics than it does for our relationship with the EU"

June 23, 2016
People arrive at a polling station in Harpenden, Britain, on June 23, 2016 ©Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images
People arrive at a polling station in Harpenden, Britain, on June 23, 2016 ©Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images

People arrive at a polling station to cast their vote in the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, Harpenden, 23rd June, 2016 ©Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images

I remain stuck on the fence staring at my polling card knowing that a decision has to be taken in the next few hours. Can I abstain? No, that is cowardly. Can I vote one way and hope that a small majority of my fellow citizens vote the other way? That would be weird and self-regarding, voting not for a narrowly preferred outcome but in order to tell people afterwards that I had voted a particular way because it felt better (and that I am not therefore responsible for the mess we are in!).

I am a moderate Eurosceptic, a moderate social democrat, a moderate social conservative. None of that is much use in telling me how to vote. I keep trying to trick myself by imagining turning on the radio tomorrow morning and checking to see how I react to either result. No dice, I can imagine hearing the news tomorrow morning and feeling equally dismayed and elated at either result.

I have no complaints about the campaigns (actually one quite big one, see below), they have been raucous and full of exaggeration and half-truth. As they should be. It has been the most class-based vote of my lifetime, with the normal alliances breaking down (at least in England) and conjuring something of a “peasants’ revolt” feel. Seldom has the GK Chesterton poem been more relevant (though I cannot recall seeing it quoted anywhere): “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; For we are the people of England that never have spoken yet.” Quite a few of them have been speaking in the past few weeks and many of the people who speak rather a lot do not like it at all—hence all the tutting about the vulgarity of the campaign.

But I must avoid the contrarian temptation. Most of my friends are "Remainers" and I live in Hampstead surrounded by writers, pop stars and rich foreigners. Perhaps I could put on my England football shirt for the walk to my polling station in lovely Keats Grove and vote "Remain," thus satisfying the impulse to ruffle the local bien pensants while avoiding the risks of Brexit?

There are excellent arguments for and against both sides, and I do not intend to rehearse them here. But I am certainly closer to voting "Leave" than I was at the start of the campaign. That is not because Brexit has run a better campaign, though they have had romance and some of the most charismatic characters on their side, but because of the prevalent tone of too many anti-Brexiteers. They have too often been condescending (nations need to cooperate doh! we all get that, but what form should that cooperation take?), morally narcissistic (we are good, open, generous spirited, you are narrow and prejudiced, see Matthew D’Ancona’s snooty piece in yesterday’s Evening Standard) or plain bullying (if you little people vote the wrong way you will be punished).

Most people in Britain are what I call “liberal populists”—they are wary of rapid change (and thus mass immigration), mildly nationalistic (they do not think societies are random collections of individuals) and have strong local and group attachments but they are also liberals in the sense that they are suspicious of authority, individualistic, believe strongly in equal rights (including for minorities, look at the sharp decline in race prejudice) and go along, with some reservations, with most of the changes associated with the 1960s.

Liberal populists will be on both sides of the argument and some (like me) stuck in the middle. Those with a bit more populism than liberalism will be for "Leave" and those with a bit more liberalism than populism will be for in. But this is not a battle for the soul of Britain as too many people have been saying today. For one thing Britain will not suddenly emerge tomorrow as a "Remainer" or "Brexiter" country, it is pretty clear we are split almost down the middle and will continue to be so. For another thing, although it is true that richer, better educated Britain is overwhelmingly for "Remain" and poorer, less well educated, “left behind” Britain is overwhelmingly for quit, there is also a big floating group of liberal populists in the middle who could divide either way.

If there is one political message that has been reinforced by the surprising success of the Brexit campaign it is that our political class, and perhaps especially the centre-left part of it, has under-estimated the negative consequences—psychological, economic and social—of greater global (and European) interconnection on people in the bottom half of the income spectrum. What may also have been missed is that while many people in the top 20 or 30 per cent of the educational and economic hierarchy have become less attached to national social contracts in the past couple of generations, most people have actually become MORE attached to them. There are several reasons for this. The welfare state has been expanding not contracting in recent decades—think tax credits and the rise of housing benefit—and although state employment overall has been in decline, if you live in some of the most run down parts of Britain you are more likely than ever to be employed by the state. The fragmentation and disappearance of a once familiar industrial working class culture and the declining status of much non-graduate employment may also have contributed to a greater attachment to the symbols and benefits of national citizenship. The loss of tight local communities may have produced a stronger attachment to the imagined community of the nation. And the benefits of national belonging CAN be diminished by European integration and rapid, large scale immigration: this is not merely false consciousness.

That is a familiar argument. But to indulge one flash of contrarianism: this referendum matters more for the shifting contours of British politics than it does for our relationship with the EU. For the future course of the EU is already pretty clearly set. There is a core group of eurozone countries which are likely to have to merge their economies (and politics) more in order to make the euro work. Then there is an outer ring of countries not in the euro but in everything else. Then there is the UK which is already more semi-detached than any other member: not in the euro, not in Schengen, not fully in “justice and home affairs.” Does it matter a whole heap if we move more formally from the inner outer ring to the outer outer ring as some kind of associate member of the EU?

The difference between being a semi-detached but “full" member and an associate member probably hangs on rather technical questions about the value of being in the single market. And on that subject one of the most persuasive single sentences I have read in the whole course of the campaign came in yesterday’s FT from Brexiter Daniel Hannan: “Why should we merge our political institutions with those of nearby states so as to have a small voice in the setting of standards over a declining proportion of our commerce?”

But for sake of balance I was also impressed by the argument—put forward by one of my fellow waverers, Clare Foges, in the Times—that one of the problems of a Brexit victory is that (perhaps a bit like a Trump presidency) it will not be able to satisfy the domestic expectations it has raised, especially in terms of immigration.

Both the economic and political impacts are very hard to predict—the economics probably favours "Remain" but the politics is even harder to guess. Would our voting to stay by just a small margin lead to a pause and re-think and the evolution towards a looser EU that is more respectful of nation states? If so I would happily vote "Remain." But might it require us to actually vote to leave by a small margin to give the EU the kick it needs—and the changes wanted by probably 70 or 80 per cent of EU citizens. The Brexit paradox: it is only be leaving that we can help to bring into being an EU we would like to rejoin.

A final, rather Brexit inclined, thought. If the EU is wise and responds with respect to our decision to leave and become an associate member then the economic disruption will be minimal and we will have won some political freedom at a low cost. If on the other hand the EU behaves vindictively and tries to maximise the economic and other costs to the UK, partly as a warning to others, then that suggests that the kind of reforms to the EU that even many "Remainers" want would be very hard to achieve.

In any case I do not want the Brexit vote to be much less than 49 per cent, in order to keep up the momentum for reform, but do I really want them to poll 50 per cent plus one vote? I only have six hours left to decide.