The UK has already left Europe. It never really joined in any real sense. National debates like this reveals much about the psyche of a country, and how it sees its collective hopes and fears. For one, it illuminates a lot about the ghosts of the past that haunt a country. In the Scottish indyref, for example, a great deal of this focused on the perceived legacy of Thatcherism and deindustrialisation.
In this European debate, the ghosts seemingly ever-present are those of the spectre of German dominance of the continent and the dark empire of the Nazis, Hitler and the second world war. Further proof, if it were needed, that this has a vice-like grip on the British imagination, was given by the recent controversy over anti-Semitism sparked by Ken Livingstone, which revolved around Hitler’s relationship with Zionism, lacking any sensitivity or interest in historical accuracy.
The 1975 referendum campaign, 41 years ago and 30 years after the second world war, had little to no references to the Nazis and Hitler. People were too close then to the horrendous, murderous events of the war, and careful to not appear tactless or make offensive comparisons. Then, a whole swathe of British politicians had fought in the war. To give a couple of examples: Ted Heath, leader of the Conservatives until February 1975, was involved in the D-Day landings; Denis Healey, Labour chancellor, landed at Anzio, south of Rome in 1944; Fitzroy Maclean, a Scottish Conservative MP in the 1960s and 1970s, had been British ambassador to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia.
The rise of fantasy Nazis in our culture has occurred as we have got further removed from the second world war. As the generations who fought in and experienced the war have passed away, our culture has got less deferential; in places more democratic, but in other ways coarser, and literary and historical references thinner. Compare the great parliamentary debates of Britain declaring war on Germany in September 1939 or the Norway debate in May 1940, the last of which brought down Chamberlain as prime minister, and laid the ground for Churchill entering Downing Street.
Then turn to recent big House of Commons debates such as the Syria debates of 2013 and 2015. Previous occasions are rich with historic and cultural references such as in May 1940 Tory MP Leo Amery calling out to Chamberlain: 'In the name of God, go’ – a direct quotation from Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Long Parliament. No such evocations are evident in the Syrian debates, but the shadows of 'appeasement’, Munich and fascism are ever present.
So many things have been missing. One is a proper understanding of the UK economy. Both Remain and Leave have parroted the mantra that 'the UK is the fifth richest country in the world’ – without any depth or economic literacy. What unites both camps is a belief in 'the Great British economic miracle’ from the 1980s onwards. This argues that whereas in the 1960s and 1970s the UK was 'the sick man of Europe’, Thatcher halted economic decline and 'put the Great back into Britain’.
Therefore, the underlying weaknesses of the UK economy go unmentioned. The huge debt overhang as a percentage of GDP, the balance of payments structural deficit, the 'crowding out’ which the City of London’s dominance does to any real economic activities, the lack of corporate investment, the long-term productivity gap, and the model of cannibalistic capitalism which produces such vandals as Philip Green (BHS) and Mike Ashley (Sports Direct). The British economic bubble of the last 30 years is taken as a real, sustainable transformation, despite all evidence to the contrary. The difficult truth is that irrespective of Remain or Leave winning, future economic storms are already gathering for the UK.
Also absent, posted missing, has been the British Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has not gone out and campaigned for the EU, leaving it to Alan Johnson. He has done one TV question and answer with a live TV audience. He has faced much criticism for this non-presence, even taking a holiday in the middle of the campaign.
However, Labour’s ambivalence underlines its wider malaise as the party’s traditional working-class supporters have shown little enthusiasm for an overt pro-EU message. Absolutely critical is the point that in a binary referendum, one legitimate approach is to sit it out. This debate has not been of Labour’s making or calling, and isn’t on Labour’s terrain of a social Europe, so it has for internal party dynamics, and to maximise the pressure on Cameron and Osborne, left them to front most of the Remain case.
Similarly, but much less pronounced, the SNP have in many respects, gone through the motions. Nicola Sturgeon has made several pro-EU interventions, but the party know this isn’t their battle, and that Remain or Leave – indyref2 is a fair while away. Sturgeon has had to undertake a careful balancing act, of keeping the increased party membership happy with the future prospect of independence, while playing a longer game, of not alienating those floating voters who have to be won over in any indyref2. It has seen a bit too much of trying to have your cake and eat it, and without any clear, strategic leadership.
There is still a chance that Britain will vote to Leave. But then the UK has always been at best semi-detached. A close vote to Leave would see a Scottish sizeable Remain vote. Then Sturgeon is faced with a difficult situation. Does a pronounced Scottish Remain on a 55-60% turnout over-turn an explicit pro-union mandate on an 85% turnout? Her most passionate supporters will say yes; she will remain canny and try to play a longer game. This is the dilemma that the SNP and Sturgeon have done all they can to avoid. Why would approximately one million or so Scots voting to remain in the EU, trump two million Scots explicitly voting to endorse the UK union?
This week is more than likely to not end the conundrums and choices flagged up in the referendum. A narrow result either way doesn’t conclude the debate or decide anything. It is even possible that a narrow Remain vote represents the worst of all worlds: with Cameron’s qualified euro position hardly endorsed, and England’s Leave constituency either narrowly winning or just losing. This could leave it, in the former case, being over-turned by a mixture of the Celtic nations, and in particular, Scottish and Northern Irish Remain votes. Similarly, a slender Leave vote, particularly on a low turnout, may not be seen by the UK Government as an absolute mandate for an unconditional Brexit.
Everyone has denied this during the campaign, but say, a 54:46 vote for Leave, on a turnout of about or under 60%, may not be the end of the matter. Instead, it might lead to the negotiation of a different, more formally distanced, British relationship with the EU, while in name remaining a member. The EU post-vote in such circumstances will do all it can to not lose the UK, with the blow to reputation and status it entails, along with years of instability. All of this would require in all probability, a second referendum, which would not be plain sailing. And that’s without even touching on the Scottish ramifications.
This brings us to the state of what passes for British democracy. For most of the existence of the UK, British elites have believed their political system is close to perfect – 'the mother of all parliaments’, the right mix of checks and balances, combining the will of the elected, with the restraint of the unelected Lords. That self-assuredness was already beginning to wither by 1975, hence the recourse to the first-ever nationwide referendum. Things haven’t got any better today, and large parts of British public life, institutions and professions, are viewed with scepticism, bordering on (in places) suspicion and contempt.
This is where the conduct of the European referendum has become part of the problem. The denigration of experts and facts is widely commented upon. Less is the partisan use of bodies such as the IMF, OECD, Bank of England and others to sell back to us what is, in effect, UK government propaganda. Whereas in 1975, prime minister Harold Wilson stayed mostly above the fray, today Cameron and the main organs of the UK Government have churned out endless pseudo-campaign facts and assertions, to try to boss a wary electorate to vote for Remain. In so doing, it has cost them and the respective institutions dear.
This has been an awful campaign. The rise of populism, the emergence of post-truth politics, the vulgar nature of much of Nigel Farage and UKIP’s politics, are self-evident, but equally appalling is the misuse of government and public agencies by Cameron and Osborne, something seen in the indyref, but now reaching hyperdrive out of desperation.
The referendum has come about because of the decline in trust in politicians and the political classes, and sadly, their behaviour in this campaign has merely added to the sense of corrosion and disbelief people have in party politics. Where that leaves us is somewhere not very pleasant and rather ugly, and to which the immediate solutions aren’t very clear. This is the world of the neverendum. In the country of Neverland.