Today, millions of Britons are making their way to the polls to vote on Britain’s membership in the European Union. The issues were never straightforward or fully elucidated; real and contrived concerns on immigration, security, economics, trade, finance, healthcare, and political sovereignty have been cited by both the Remain and Leave campaigns in their efforts to sway the British people. Despite stabilizing in the polls lately, the tragically incompetent Remain campaign (rebranded as Stronger In) may still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Starting with a comfortable majority, Stronger In has succeeded in warping a seemingly sensible narrative into a basket case of fearmongering themes and slogans. Defense and terrorism feature prominently in Remain’s corpus of pro-EU facts and figures. Britons are inundated with negative articles and speeches referring to the country’s economic security. For example, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently claimed that British households would be £4,300 poorer in the event of a British exit; notwithstanding his own attempts to impose austerity at every opportunity, against the warnings of the same prominent financial organizations that caution against Brexit. Don’t get me wrong, the Leave campaign (rebranded as Vote Leave) have also employed negative dog-whistle sloganeering to influence votes; look no further than UKIP’s racist immigration posters. Still, Vote Leave has managed to offer a positive narrative – the BeLeave movement – while Stronger In has scrambled to produce anything other than doomsday predictions.
Having thrown away early momentum and sidelining all the positive qualities the EU has to offer, is it any wonder that support for a British exit overtook the remain vote last week? A closer look, however, at the Stronger In campaign can go someway to explaining the systemic failures of this organization and its political figureheads.
Much of the blame for Stronger In’s incompetence rests with Britain’s equally inept Prime Minister. Last year, David Cameron shattered his credibility when he declared his plans not to serve a third term as PM, igniting a war of succession within his cabinet and, fearing a Tory-backed coup, he called this referendum to save his own political skin, putting 40 years of international economic and political progress in jeopardy. As Stronger In’s standard bearer, Cameron now faces Conservative heavyweights, such as London’s entertaining former mayor Boris Johnson, who have bet their political fortunes on a "leave" vote. Osborne’s savage austerity measures, and Jeremy Hunt’s NHS witchhunt, have also damaged public trust in the Tories’ pro-EU faction. On the opposite bench, Labour’s eleventh hour support for Stronger In betrays its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-EU sentiments and his party’s self-serving efforts to consolidate its heartland, the anti-immigration north of England. Public trust in Britain’s political establishment is so muted that President Barack Obama, enlisted to shore up the Stronger In campaign, scored higher that any British politician in a recent poll on the referendum.
David Cameron, as Stronger In’s figurehead, was always a poor choice. His speech at the British Museum, aimed to give him an aura of statesmanship, instead delivered him as an urban elitist, out of touch with the ‘middle’ England that voted for him in 2015. Cameron’s inability to relate to voters makes for a cringe worthy spectacle. Particularly noteworthy was his mauling on live TV by members of the public, which did little for his cause and less for whatever legacy he may attempt to salvage from his career. In an agonizing contrast, Boris Johnson, Vote Leave’s tousled-haired head honcho, proffered effective regular homilies, peppered with familiar idioms and fond reminders of a time that never was, to his audience’s great satisfaction. But, if the clearly out-of-depth Cameron was never going to succeed in gaining the public’s trust, who was?
Enter Stronger In’s grassroots campaign. Banging down doors, canvassing neighbourhoods, and berating pensioners, an army of determined pro-EU advocates was supposed to descend upon Britain’s cities and succeed where the polished political class failed. Instead, Stronger In’s middle management neglected to take the opportunities that would convince the electorate. Its campaigners picketed plush London neighbourhoods, such as Hampstead and Islington, where support for Remain is unassailable, wasting valuable resources and avoiding the ground war in hotly contested areas. Economically struggling regions are often Eurosceptic and, paradoxically, reliant on the EU for jobs and support; presenting a lost opportunity for the Stronger In campaign to dispel rumour and build trust. On a recent trip to the ‘forgotten’ North, Vote Leave’s presence is unmistakable; signs for ‘Taking Back Control’ and ‘June 23rd: Independence Day’ punctuate Liverpool’s cityscape.
However, all is not lost: the bookies and the markets project a Remain victory on today’s vote. Yet, the brutal assassination of Jo Cox, a pro-Remain champion, has underscored her own misgivings about the polarizing effect that the EU referendum debate has had on Britain’s society. Cox’s murder may have blunted Vote Leave’s momentum, but this is hardly a silver lining as a young, bright member of Parliament has been taken from her family. But for Cameron’s ineptitude, the Tories’ political infighting, or Remain and Leave’s race to the bottom, we should never have got to this point in the first place. Calling a referendum was a gross miscalculation and those who follow will have their work cut out for them, cleaning the spill from the toxic cauldron of the Brexit campaign.
As you may have guessed, I will be voting for Britain to remain in the European Union, notwithstanding my April piece in The Envoy. I admire Britons’ unique political identity and I appreciate that the EU’s unelected, bureaucratic priesthood has stubbornly refused to address the serious concerns of Britons and other Europeans. On the other hand, the EU has raised the standards of living throughout Europe, brought prosperity to otherwise poor and weak European countries, and needs, in the words of Germany’s Der Spiegel, Britain’s "nonchalance and progress." Europe, for the younger generation of Brits, has provided extraordinary opportunities to work and travel; to love whoever and live wherever we damn well please. For many in this world, being born within the European Union’s borders is like winning the lottery; a vote to exit amounts to setting fire to Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. The European dream of unity, plurality, and prosperity is a cause for Brits to celebrate, contribute to, and fight for.