Referendum – the worst political mistake in decades

Adrian Wooldridge in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 22 June 2016
The Management Editor and ‘Schumpeter’ columnist for “The Economist” magazine discusses the consequences of Brexit and explains why the leave campaign has so far been so successful.

Łukasz Pawłowski: What is this referendum really about?

Adrian Wooldridge: I think it’s about different things for different people. For a lot of those who want to remain – we might call them the economic establishment of the country – it’s about the set of relationship with the EU. For those who want to get out it’s much more about British identity, which, they feel, has been subjected to a series of attacks. One facet of this sentiment is the feeling we need to regain our right to self-determination, right to decide on our own laws and borders. But more deeply those Britons think that over the last 20 years there’s been a dramatic change in the composition of the population, a change they have not been consulted about. For people who want to get out the question of the EU is an excuse to engage in a much wider debate about what sort of country we are and want to be.

You claim it is a debate about British identity but according to the polls at least three out of four nations composing the United Kingdom – the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish – prefer to stay in the EU.

It’s more complicated. Many people who want to leave claim they want Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be a sovereign entity. They would argue – in a way that is slightly defied by empirical reality – that the UK can survive outside the EU as a united country and indeed thrive. On the other hand, there’s a significant group within the leave camp, composed of English nationalists, who in fact would not mind if Scotland became independent.

What about the other parts of the country?

They would probably want to keep Northern Ireland, and Wales is too small and too dependent on England to have a chance of surviving on its own. So there is indeed a feeling of UK nationalism, but a subordinate part of it is English nationalism, which has become a very powerful sentiment. When I was leaving England for the United States in the late 1990’s you would never see an English flag anywhere – England was just a part of United Kingdom. Now the flags are everywhere. That’s one of the effects of our membership in the EU – centralised power ignites senses of local identity all over the Continent.

Illustration: Zofia Rogula

Illustration: Zofia Rogula

But Britain is exempted from many EU policies – primarily Schengen and Eurozone.

I personally am in favour of staying in the EU and one reason why I will vote this way is because we have much more flexibility than other countries. Yet the leave people believe that the Union is in its very essence an integrationist project and it will be moving towards more and more centralisation. I hope that in the next couple of years the EU evolves into a much looser federation and Britain can help to redefine it that way. Should Brussels take a more integrationist turn, it will lead to a disaster.

What role do economic arguments play in the British debate?

One reason why the in campaign has had much difficulty to get its economic argument across – despite most respected economists and economic bodies arguing to stay – is that most of these people who now urge Britain to remain in the EU were also in favour of joining the euro, which would be a huge mistake. It’s therefore quite easy for the leave campaign to discredit their arguments.

You say most economic bodies argues for Britain to stay in the EU, but when one listens to British radio or watch British TV, one can hear economists arguing both for staying and leaving in almost equal proportions. 

Public radio and television present a very distorted view of the argument. They have to abide by the so-called “fairness doctrine” whereby when you have one economist arguing for Britain to stay, you need to get one economist from the leave camp. It gives an impression that economists are split more or less evenly, which in my view is not true. When I talk to CEO’s of the biggest companies an overwhelming majority is in favour of staying. The problem is – as I said before – most of those people were also in favour of joining the euro.

Can you explain why has the share of those wanting to leave increased recently?

People in favour of leaving have campaigned extremely well and they’ve turned this debate into a conversation about two things: firstly, people versus the establishment and, secondly, immigration. Had it been a conversation about whether you are better off in or out, which is what the remain people wanted – it would have produced a fairly clear outcome.

How is the society divided? Can you describe a model stay and leave voter, or do the divisions cut through all the social and economic dimensions?

You can certainly describe them. There’s a very stark division socially, economically and in terms of mentality. The model stay voter is a cosmopolitan, well-educated, professional worker, quite often working abroad or for big multinational corporations in Britain. I work in London in a media company – most of the people around me are in favour of staying.

The leave people are quite often elderly, they feel that British culture is being changed in ways that are very threatening and worrying. Most of them live outside London. Some are working-class Labour voters, others retired professionals supporting the Tories. The English revolution in the 17th century was a revolution of the country against the court. We see it being repeated now – it is the court in the sense of metropolitan elite versus the country, that is people living outside big centres of power. They are worried about rapid changes in the social structure and they rebel against being looked down on by the metropolitan elite.

Cameron’s decision to call this referendum will go down as one of the biggest political mistakes of the last 50 years.

Adrian Wooldridge

What are the political affiliations of those wanting to leave? You have a Conservative prime minister calling to stay, but the core of the leave movement is also composed of Conservatives. 

To make things more complicated the Tory party behaves differently depending on whether it’s in or out of power. Many most prominent stay campaigners have traditionally been very sceptical about the EU. Even now, when they are in office they say that Europe is at most a convenient relationship – because of the free trade – although an annoying one.

David Cameron’s patron in the Tory party was a man called Norman Lamont who in the early 1990’s started the whole movement towards leaving the EU, which at that time was seen as insanity. Yet the idea has evolved from being at far fringes of the Tory party to being adopted by many of its most prominent members.

At the same time we have many working-class Labour workers who have turned against the EU. And this referendum is going to be decided by the turnout among this group.

Why them?

On the Tory side the proportions of those preferring to stay or leave are decided. But there are a lot of floating voters, who are Labour supporters. And the party leadership has not given them a clear signal how to vote.

Some of its members campaign to stay, others – including the leader, Jeremy Corbyn – have been largely silent. Where does the Labour Party stand on this issue?

There’s a battle for Jeremy Corbyn’s soul between his instincts – which say that the EU is a capitalist plot – and his slightly more wise sentiment saying that this is the best thing on offer. As a result he remained silent and virtually absent from this debate. It is very peculiar to have a leader of one of the two major parties saying virtually nothing about the most important decision we will make in the coming decades. Only recently he has very gently started to campaign in favour of staying.

And what about Tony Blair, the most pro-European and for many years the most popular Labour politician?

He did not campaign a lot, because now he is extremely unpopular. The people who really and strongly believe in the EU in this country are the Labour Party members of the Blairite faction – yet they’ve been saying very little.

What happened between now and 1997 when Blair won his first elections and Britain entered probably the most pro-European period in its recent history?

Firstly, Blair repeatedly declared he wanted to be at the heart of Europe and wanted Britain to join the Eurozone. This would have turned out to be a disaster, so Blair and his supporters were discredited in the eyes of many Britons on that front. Second factor which contributed to Blair’s current unpopularity was obviously the Iraq war and his close cooperation with George W. Bush. A man who wanted to take Britain to the heart of Europe ended up taking it to the heart of Mesopotamia. Thirdly, Blair is associated with the global establishment. He tours the world, gives speeches, makes a lot of money and has close relations with banks and financial corporations.

David Cameron called this referendum to placate dissent in the Conservative Party. Assuming that Britain stays in the EU, do you think the divisions between the Tories will diminish?

Cameron’s decision to call this referendum will go down as one of the biggest political mistakes of the last 50 years. The level of bitterness and hostility within the Tory Party is quite astonishing. No matter the result of the referendum it’s difficult to see how these people could all sit down and get on with each other. If it’s a close vote, the leave people will not become silent. The only thing to shut them up would be a very convincing victory on the part of those wanting to stay, which I don’t think is possible now. Cameron has exacerbated the problem of divisions within his party rather than solved it.

Why then did he decide to call this referendum?

He underestimated the number of people within the party, especially in the top ranks, who would campaign to leave. He expected to have a massive victory and shut this issue up for a long time. Instead, he opened up wounds which will not be easy to heal, even if he wins.

What will be the major consequences of leaving, both immediate and long-term ones?

One of the immediate consequences will be a big economic shock coming at the time when the global economy is still very shaky and the recovery is still very fragile. It will also encourage populist movements all over Europe, particularly in Northern Europe, which also want their countries to leave the European Union. The chances of the EU unravelling will thus grow significantly. In the longer term and on the positive side, this might impose on people in Brussels a more realistic view on the European project and force them to give up on the idea of creating the United States of Europe.

On the whole, however, British decision to leave will create a lot of political uncertainty at the time when we already have too much of it. That’s why I think in the end we are going to stay, though it looks dodgier and dodgier by the day.