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18 September 2020

Why Brexit was a Tory feud that never needed to be inflicted on us

Until the wretched referendum, most people in this country didn’t care much about Britain’s relationship with Europe.  

By Jonn Elledge

Something to bear in mind, as we edge closer to the no-deal cliff edge and Britain’s relationship with the European Union once again begins to crowd out every single other political issue: none of this ever needed to happen at all. 

I don’t mean the referendum could have been won (though one of the truly fun things about a vote in which a 1.9 per cent swing would have changed the result is you can make a plausible case that just about anything could have swung it; this has led to many, many hours of fruitful and enlightened debate about fascinating topics such as Jeremy Corbyn). Nor do I mean that, if the UK/Theresa May/the Liberal Democrats/the EU beret people had played their cards differently, then we could have escaped the ludicrous situation we are in now (though, again, in at least some of those cases there’s probably some truth to that, too).

[see also: How the Brexit virus is turning the UK into a rogue state]

No: I mean this never needed to happen at all because, before that sodding referendum, most people in this country didn’t actually care that much about Britain’s relationship with Europe – certainly not enough that it would have seemed more important than any other issue. And we have the numbers to prove it.

Historically, polling has found surprisingly wide fluctuations in the electorate’s attitude to EEC/EC/EU membership. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, at a time when Europe was still viewed as a capitalist club and Lexit was all the rage, polls found that as much as two-thirds of the electorate wanted out. By the time of the Single European Act in 1986, however, the trend had reversed, and although the margin varied and Leave very occasionally had a lead, Remain generally edged it.

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Even if it hadn’t, though, it was abundantly clear that most people didn’t really care. In January 2015, with a general election looming, the BBC and Populus asked people to rank the issues the news should be covering in the run-up to the vote. Europe was described as “very” or “fairly” important by 78 per cent of respondents. That may sound like a lot – but it actually meant it ranked ninth out of 13 named issues, even the last of which (“rural affairs”) was fairly or very important to 55 per cent of the voters. The biggest issues were (shocking, this) the NHS, economy and the welfare state, as well as immigration. (As late as December 2015, just six months before the referendum, only 1 per cent named Europe as the most important issue.) 

A YouGov poll the following April told a similar story. When voters were asked, “Which are the most important issues facing the country?” Europe ranked seventh out of 13, cited by just 16 per cent of respondents. When the question was rephrased as “the most important issues facing you and your family” that already tiny number fell by half. The issue ranked 11th.

So: the referendum seems to have turned a mildly, if not wildly, Remain electorate into a mildly-but-we’ll-pretend-it’s-overwhelmingly-for-some-reason Leave one. That sucks for the rest of us, but we lost, get over it, etc. A much less discussed fact is the way it has turned a largely apathetic electorate into one where a huge number of voters on both sides suddenly really, really care about Europe.

Or to put it another way – if we hadn’t had that awful referendum we could have been spared this entire rolling crisis, and except for a few tweeded-up weirdos nobody out there would have much cared. (At this point it seems worth noting: yes, I have noticed the pandemic; yes, I do know it’s more important than Brexit; no, that doesn’t mean Brexit is going anywhere. Sorry.)

One argument for the referendum was that a lot of people did care about immigration, and that so long as Britain remained in the EU the government’s ability to change policy on that issue was limited. Another is that the EU was drifting from supranational organisation to superstate, and it’s only fair to check that people who signed up to the former are happy to enter the latter. I’m not wild about either of these arguments, but that’s because I have no issue with either immigration or European superstates, and on democratic grounds I can’t really fault them.

But, of course, they weren’t the real reason we had a referendum. The real reason was because of the rising threat Ukip posed to the Tory party, and because rows over Europe had destroyed multiple previous Conservative leaders and David Cameron (ha, ha, ha) didn’t want it to destroy him too. The genius of this move was that, not only did it destroy him, and his chancellor and closest political ally; it also allowed radicalised both Leavers and Remainers, and turned an issue that hardly anyone cared about into one which everyone was obsessed with and which would drain all political energy from every other part of national life for years or decades to come. 

[see also: Why Boris Johnson is desperate to keep Brexit in the news]

Cameron aimed to end a problem that had been dogging the Conservative Party for a quarter of a century. Instead, he managed to make it metastasise so that it infected every other part of the body politic. Charitably, he was defending the interests of a party of under 200,000 members or, less charitably, his own, tiny circle. Now the entire country is four years into the consequences, and not only is the end not in sight, it isn’t even conceivable.

And none of this ever needed to happen at all. Hardly anybody wanted to bother with any of it. Remember that this winter, when Britain crashes out without a deal, the government undermines the Good Friday Agreement, and Leavers try to convince you it’s what they’ve wanted all along. 

[see also: How the UK is destroying itself over Brexit]

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