Wednesday, 22 June 2016

EU Referendum: Britain’s past and future

Two visions of Britain compete: one is a shiny Pret-a-Manger, frequented by a mix of sharp-suits and younger hipsters in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses; the other vision is very different. It’s a tea room on the windswept pier of a neglected English seaside town, frequented by a shabby but proud clientele of reminiscent, forgetful pensioners, while some unemployed men and a few sullen teens drift past its fading frontage.

While it's a caricature and not representative of many voters' outlooks, it is emblematic of the split between many voting "Bremain" or for "Brexit" in tomorrow’s UK referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. Whoever writes The Economist’s Bagehot column must think along similar lines, describing the UK Independence Party’s leader "[Nigel] Farage’s vision of England: a hazy confabulation of content without modernity; of warm beer, bowler hats, faces blackened by coal dust; of bread-and-dripping, fish and chips, hope and glory".

Britain has changed. It is not the same country as it was thirty, fifty or one hundred years ago, and it can never go back. Britain is a liberal, dynamic, globalised, diverse and innovative power house. We are among just a handful of countries able to call ourselves leaders in diplomatic, cultural and economic might. The Little Englander's tea room is an archaism from which little or nothing can be gained.

The source of our power has changed over the decades, as well as declined from its Victorian peak. Insular instincts should not win out in trying to somehow roll back the years – the whole world is different. Harking back to an imperial past is redundant, and our great history is instead reflected in the cosmopolitan makeup of modern UK society and in our shared liberal values and cultural bonds with countries beyond our shores  in Europe and elsewhere.

Clearly I’m voting “In”, largely for economic reasons, which I think are supported by the bulk of expertise and reports published in recent months, particularly relating to trade deals and single market access. I’m not going to go into detail on this. I think everybody in the UK is close to overdose, and there’s been no shortage of rhetoric from both camps.

Tomorrow’s vote is very much an English question: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are together a minority of the UK’s population, poorer than England, and more europhile. Their own provincial nationalism – most conspicuously in Scotland – has been traditionally directed against the English. The same jingoistic anachronisms exist within the English, but are traditionally directed against the French, the Germans – rival great powers in Europe’s history.

The Scottish National Party is eerily quiet on tomorrow, knowing that if the English cave to their own xenophobic wants and vote to leave the EU, the Scots will likely get a second independence referendum within this generation, on the strength that Scotland on its own would never have voted to leave the EU. A vote for Brexit is therefore also likely a vote to break up Great Britain.

My analogy for the two competing visions of Britain, or England, to be more specific, hints at the schism across society on this issue. Older white voters are more eurosceptic, with caveats for those in London and the rich Southeast. Most ethnic minorities are pro-EU, although the effect is lessened with time since migration, with some in the Windrush generation potentially as pro-Brexit as their white British peers. The Kippers who back Farage’s UKIP and favour Brexit are largely drawn from England’s sleepy coastal towns and the poorer post-industrial parts of the Midlands and the North.

Labour’s voters are split. In London its ethnically diverse voters back Remain. Elsewhere, many of its older working class voters come from the eurosceptic swathes of the poorer Midlands and the North that are less cosmopolitan and more suspicious of Polish plumbers, taxi drivers and cleaners taking away their blue collar jobs through EU freedom of movement rules.

The Tories are of course the most publicly split party on this issue. The whole referendum was promised in an irresponsible gamble to end the party’s civil war on Europe. Economically liberal minded Conservatives, exemplified by George Osborne and David Cameron, are campaigning to remain. They look to the big business voices that say to leave will cost market access, jobs, prosperity and GDP, and fear the market forces that have already sent stocks tumbling in recent weeks. And Boris Johnson has cynically struck out for Leave only to differentiate himself from his rivals, without regard for personal integrity or the national interest. 

The broader Conservative base, particularly older voters in rural areas, is largely for Brexit. These are the old fashioned Tories, who in their hearts have little in common with the European project. Like their grimy UKIP cousins, they hark back to times that no longer exist, or now only exist within the sheltered comfort of their country pubs and WI fetes, but cannot represent Britain any further than their nearest largish town.

The young – vital to this vote – are also divided. Generationally, twenty-somethings are much more in favour of the EU than their parents, despite never growing up with the spectre of the security nightmare that spawned the treaties of Paris and Rome in the years following the Second World War. Millennials' EU enthusiasm is borne from free travel, cheap holidays, cultural globalisation, growing up in an era when jokes about national stereotypes become less the norm, and less attachment to previous generations’ clinging view of a Britain in post-colonial decline.

That said, plenty of young people are in favour of Brexit, for similar reasons to their parents, whether in rural communities or post-industrial towns. Kids tend to vote like their parents. The other big question mark is in whether the young will turn out in sufficient numbers to be a decisive influence on the result. Oldies usually vote, but in this case, young people are more enthused by the issue at stake, even if they are divided.

I wonder which vision will have triumphed by the time the UK wakes up on Friday morning.