Well, that was a bit of a Summer Surprise, wasn’t it? (And I say that fully conscious that I wrote ‘predicting’ this EU scenario in December 2014.) The narrative for the European vote – even although Scottish independence supporters had been talking about this split outcome as a platform for the next independence referendum for more than 18 months – is still somehow unbelievable…with so many stupid errors of judgement as to make a film script of these events lack any credibility whatsoever.
First of all – what genius (on Cameron’s side, remember) thought that placing an EU Referendum amidst a European Championship football competition where England was represented, was a good idea? The European question was an English question, and so the issue of the Euro Championships obviously come centre stage – a draw with Russia, and a game to win against Wales, knowing that if they lose they are out…if you are going to inflame English nationalism (which many have interpreted as rising through the increasing support for leaving Europe), then of course you hold it during a football championship where England will be playing – a win makes the feeling of empowerment soar, a loss makes their hatred of foreigners do likewise: surely the worst possible time for a referendum on Europe, Cameron? Didn’t you check your calendar and realise that it was happening? I was travelling between Peterborough and Cambridge in the days running up to the vote – deprived housing districts in Peterborough were as redolent in ‘Leave’ placards as they were in St George’s Crosses…and Cambridge was just as devoid of both, instead decorated with a forest of ‘Remain’ banners. You could see a very clear ‘deprivation’ split – as well as the melding (or blurring) of identities.
Secondly, there was the nature of the actual campaign – ‘OutFearing Project Fear’ – such a contrast where September 2014 was Project Fear versus hope, this time it was Project Fear versus a near-identical Project Fear on the opposite side. Cameron obviously thought that what worked in Scotland would work again – but failed to factor in the solid press antagonism to Scottish independence in 2014, as compared to the split in the press over the EU referendum: this time, the press were NOT in his pocket, his message had a stifled platform, and his campaign stalled.
On 1st June, two ICM polls for The Guardian — one online and one by phone — both put the ‘Leave’ campaign on 52 per cent. Previously only the online polls had put ‘Leave’ ahead — those indications were a seven per cent drop for ‘Remain’ on the phone poll carried out by ICM the previous month. But then a further poll came out, appearing to show that ICM’s were yet another Iain Gray rogue poll – the undecideds were breaking 2:1 for ‘Remain’, giving ‘Remain’ a seven point lead. ‘Remain’ breathed a sigh of relief – the data was gathered over 10th-15th June, and on the 16th June Labour MP Jo Cox was killed, reportedly by someone shouting ‘Britain First’. That seemed to be an end to the possibility of the EU departure – because, regardless of whether the individual was a member of the organization, or was not acting under ‘instructions’, surely the associated revulsion from such an act would swing people away from voting for Leave, and thus be associated with such an act? A prompt for ‘shy Remainers’ to come out firmly for the EU, I would have thought.
As much as my sympathies and vote was very much for Remain, it has always annoyed me that single acts of violence, which can be utterly dissociated from the main campaigns and campaigners, can be attached to them by the media in order to discredit the broader campaign. I was pretty sure that was going to happen after the murder of Jo Cox. More than this – with the timing in the polls, Cameron also being put under the spotlight by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News a day earlier for electoral fraud by his party in 31 constituencies at the preceding General Election (thus jeopardising his majority in Westminster), it is hard not to note how politically convenient the timing was for him, no matter how much one wants to resist the tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists with the model of yet another ‘lone nut’. Follow the money, as they say…who would benefit from such a radical move? Certainly not the Leave campaign: they would clearly lose out in the backlash following such a tragic incident.
And yet apparently not. The Jo Cox factor did not have the powerful effect that one would have anticipated at other times – shockingly so.
A friend (who worked in the Department of Environment and Climate Change, no less) described the mood in the office, the morning the result was declared, and the common cause between the City of London and Scotland: the plans to flood the M25, and dig a tunnel up to Scotland to create the new state of the ‘Isles of Sanity’. Sadly, the shock in that government office reflected the preparedness of the whole of Whitehall for that particular outcome.
And as soon as the dust of the result cleared, the leaders were gone – Theresa May stepping into the vacuum, her position of being acceptable to both Leave and Remain factions only credible through her highly understated and modest expressions of support for Remain, while fully committing herself to enacting ‘the wishes of the people’. Which is actually one small sliver of a silver lining for this whole fiasco: during the Scottish Independence Referendum, we were always worried about the margin that we would need for Westminster to not contest or simply ignore the result (as they did with other parts of the Edinburgh Agreement). Part of the sabre rattling in the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum very much coalesced around the ‘No’ side saying ‘even if you get a marginal win, we’ll demand a rerun anyway’. Personally I thought that as much as we would have taken a one vote win, we would need to have had nearer 60% of the vote to be reasonably confident of withstanding such calls. May’s acceptance of a result that she supposedly was not in favour of has changed all that – win a referendum by 2%, and Westminster capitulates. Precedent established.
What grounds would justify a rerun (of either referendum) is another question: an online petition to rerun the EU referendum immediately gained over 3 million signatures on the basis that ‘wait we did not understand the question’. Arguments for a rerun of the Scottish Independence Referendum are somewhat less about regarding the electorate as idiots. A reasonable summary would be ‘Westminster, you got a second chance with your promises and threats in 2014, and you blew it on every single level’. And that was even before the hollowness of the promise that ‘you can only stay in the EU if you vote No to Scottish Independence’ was exposed – Sturgeon even flagged that up clearly as their manifesto commitment in the May 2016 Holyrood elections, so they knew what was coming with that even larger SNP landslide than 2011. The difference between the revisiting of each referendum is ‘the electorate were too dumb to understand’ as opposed to ‘last minute promises by the Westminster government of the day in the purdah period utterly failed to be delivered’. The bizarreness of the Daily Record – the newspaper that delivered the hollow empty promises of ‘The Vow’ two days before the Scottish independence vote – now coming out encouraging Nicola Sturgeon to hold another independence referendum after the EU outcome, is …well, surreal, frankly.
And Boris’ plan – if the tales are true – was to narrowly lose the vote – not win it. What – was he trying to do a Nicola Sturgeon, thinking that the electorate loves a gallant loser? Did Boris think that it was just a ‘rebound’ factor in the SNP’s popularity from narrowly losing, that gave them their current status – that if he could emulate the SNP’s gallant failure, that he would spontaneously acquire a heroic status? Not so easy as the SNP made it look, was it Boris? A bit more to it than that, old chap: you have to offer something different from Fear and Hate to do that…or as Sadiq Khan described the ‘Leave’ campaign ‘Project Hate’.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, I still would not have been surprised if the ‘decision’ failed to be implemented – the ‘Leave’ MPs were talking in a very relaxed fashion about the long grass that it could be kicked into, in stark contrast to David Cameron’s promise to enact Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as soon as the result was known. The only problem is that the local council elections are due next May, and if the Conservatives do not seem to be respecting the result, they could lose heavily to UKIP. So Boris has announced that Article 50 will be activated early next year (before the end of March). Madness.
Or is Theresa May – similarly to Boris – also trying to copy Nicola Sturgeon? As much as Nicola makes much of attempting to secure a non-BrExit future for Scotland within the UK, you must think that she fully expects to be turning around in 6 months time to say ‘well guys – we tried, but they were not playing ball’, having done enough to win over at least some of those who would not have supported a full-blown attempt to go all-out for independence from June 24th. If Theresa also uses the rhetoric of hard BrExit, in order to appear to be driving down a UKIP motorway, but then is pulled up by some outside threat to say ‘sorry guys – we could not do it after all, we will have to go soft’, then she might similarly be hoping to convince enough UKIP-leaners to abandon support for them because she appeared to sincerely give it a go, even though she had no expectation of success. (After all, why else would you allow Amber Rudd to give such an obviously-repugnant speech about foreign worker registration at a Conservative Party conference? It seems unlikely that that was a serious policy proposal to be brought forward to Westminster, given the cries of ‘neo-Nazi’ that were certain to follow and resonate with such a move.)
The UK Government still seems in utter chaos – for each new glimmer of light shed by a cabinet minister, a distancing statement follows from Downing Street within 24 hours. The new Home Secretary announces a programme of businesses registering foreign workers? No, that is not government policy. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union says that it is highly improbable that the UK will retain access to the single market if the price is free movement of people? No that is an opinion, not government policy. It is fair to say that more has been retracted than revealed about BrExit by the UK government since the morning of 24th June. And yet Theresa May – pursuing a far harder exit from the EU (eschewing even the single market) than was ever in the Conservative manifesto – believes that Nicola Sturgeon has ‘no mandate’ to offer a second independence referendum, despite it clearly being stated in the SNP manifesto that this would become live if the UK vote went against the vote of Scotland in the EU Referendum.
One could argue that the electorate that voted for Leave have been taken for fools by opportunists, and are now destined to be ridden roughshod over by a government driving for a far more damaging break than they had a mandate for. However one cannot say the same thing about Scotland – 44% of the vote went to a party who said that they would have a second independence referendum in the event that the UK voted to leave the EU while Scotland voted to stay in. That path was flagged up very clearly – the Conservatives lemming-charge towards a cliff edge most certainly was not.
“For the state must draw a sharp line of distinction between those who as members of the nation are the foundation and support of its existence and greatness and those who are domiciled in the state simply as earners of their livelihood there.” (from chapter 2 of Mein Kampf)