In a few days’ time, my country will hold a referendum on whether to stay inside the European Union or to leave it. I am fairly convinced that the outcome will be a victory for the ‘leave’ camp. London and Scotland will vote to stay in, the UK as a whole will vote to leave (led by those parts that have benefited most from EU membership), and a second referendum on Scottish independence will probably follow, in which case Scotland will almost certainly vote to leave the UK in order to stay in the EU. England will be left behind with the relatively impoverished Wales and Northern Ireland – both of which will lose their EU funding, as will the economically marginal parts of England that the London-based government will continue to do its best to ignore, as it has done for many years.
Nobody knows what will happen after that, but there’s no reason to think it will be good. It’s not just that we don’t know how the UK will function outside of the EU (and that the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign haven’t bothered to explain). It’s that the UK has very little experience of being outside entities larger than itself, having joined the EU’s predecessor organisation quite shortly after the breakup of its empire (Ghanaian independence, 1957; Nigerian independence, 1960; Zambian independence, 1964; accession to the European Community, 1973), and that England has still less, having been united with Scotland since 1707. I strongly suspect that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and the rest don’t really care, as long as they end up in power sooner rather than later: Johnson in particular was strongly pro-EU (and even in favour of Turkish membership of the EU) until a few months ago when he apparently realised that leading a successful campaign to leave it was his best chance of becoming Prime Minister by getting rid not only of David Cameron but of Cameron’s most likely successor, George Osborne. That’s how populism works.
The Vote Leave campaign has lost the argument on every level except for the level of public opinion. Its victory on the latter level – in a referendum, the only level that counts – is almost certainly attributable to the public’s having experienced the argument as filtered through a popular press that is almost uniformly pro-Brexit. Amongst other things, this filtration has gifted pro-Leave campaigners a lack of scrutiny enabling them to make promises (especially on public spending and on immigration) that they will probably be unable to keep. The result is that the general public is swinging more and more heavily behind the decision to leave the EU without a coherent understanding of why this might or might not be a good idea (see this film by John Harris).
What are we to do? As citizens: vote, volunteer to knock on doors – and prepare for the worst, because it’s probably coming. As academics: think again about the influence of the press. Qualitative researchers in particular love to point out that the idea of ‘media effects’ is too simplistic, but… heck, look around the UK right now.
1. I’d love to be wrong on this, really I would.
2. Dear friends: yes, I am aware that there is a left-wing case for leaving the EU, but please don’t kid yourselves that it’s what’s driving public opinion right now. The only positive for the left is that it will be able to blame the right – the xenophobic, populist right that is behind the Vote Leave campaign – for everything that goes wrong after its victory in the referendum.