Britain is sleepwalking towards Brexit. That’s increasingly the verdict of the commentariat, anyway. In today’s Times, Dominic Cummings argues that “Voters don’t believe the prime minister when he says he’ll get a better deal for Britain in Europe”. Last week, Matthew Parris wrote “Have no doubt. We’re heading for an EU exit”. Matthew argued that “Britain is heading for the exit. Something seriously impressive has to be achieved to change our course.”
The rationale is simple. As Vernon Bogdanor warned in a recent lecture: “Don’t imagine that Mr Cameron can pull off Harold Wilson’s trick a second time.”
Mr Wilson managed to convince the public that he had secured a triumphant renegotiation before the 1975 referendum, when he had done nothing of the sort. With the political class having never been held in more contempt – and the “Yes” camp in any referendum in 2017 certain not to enjoy the nine-to-one funding advantage that the pro-EU forces did 39 years ago – Mr Cameron would face a much more onerous task. Professor Bogdanor notes a Gallup poll in January 1975 showing a narrow majority in favour of leaving, while 71% said they would prefer to stay “If the Government negotiated new terms for Britain’s membership of the Common Market” – something that closely resembled the final result. “People could be greatly influenced by what the political leaders, in particular the leaders of the Labour Party, said”. The implication is that the same is not true today.
But here’s the thing: even if Professor Bogdanor is right, it won’t matter. The polls tell us that Mr Cameron doesn’t need to pull off Mr Wilson’s trick. A YouGov survey last week, showed support for remaining in the EU at its highest level under the current government. The public suggest they would still listen to the advice of the government – there is a 35% lead in favour of staying in the EU in the event of Mr Cameron recommending that Britain does so. Yet, even without one, staying in is the preferred option: 44% would vote to remain in the EU, compared to 36% who would sooner leave.
Even if the public were to ignore Mr Cameron’s advice, he has already made his greatest contribution to the pro-EU cause. The near five-year gap between his pledge to hold an in-out referendum and the date when this would be amounts to a bump of several points for the “Yes” camp.
That’s because of demographics. The generational divide among voters has never been starker than on Europe. The younger they are, the more Europhile they come. Today. only the over 60s support Brexit. Remaining in has an 8% advantage with 40-59-year-olds (even without a recommendation from the PM) – and it rises to 30% among the under-25s. While Britain has an ageing population, this is not, crudely put, enough to make up for the Eurosceptics who are passing away, because those who have been at university, studied abroad and always remember Britain being part of the EU tend to stubbornly cling onto pro European beliefs.
The upshot is simple. Every day that Britain waits for an referendum on its membership of the EU, remaining in becomes a more likely course. Unless opponents of the EU can locate a message that resonates with the young – nay, make that anyone under 60 – euroscepticism faces defeat by demographics.