The big question in Britain these days is: In — or out?
This refers, of course, to the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is the matter that is now known as ‘Brexit’ i.e. the possibility of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Ever since the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced a referendum on the question, there has been a growing sense that finally we will be able to properly gauge the level of anti-EU sentiment in the UK.
The demand for a referendum was not a new one. It is what opponents of the EU precursor, the Common Market, had called for from the 1970s onwards and it is what billionaire James Goldsmith actually founded a political party on (the Referendum party). Early opponents of such an alliance of economic and trade interests with Europe had included Tony Benn and Barbara Castle and the underlying suspicion had been that if it was asked the question then the British electorate would reject the idea.
So how does it look now? Is Britain ready to break away from the control of Brussels?
It looks unlikely; yet one can’t really underestimate the quirky British tendency to dig in heels, defy outsiders, and generally show a ‘stiff upper lip’. There was huge resistance to moving to the metric system and away from ounces and pounds, yet this seems to have worked out alright despite much initial grumbling. Retaining its own currency, pound sterling rather than the Euro, has also been a point Britain has remained firm on despite other countries grumbling about their demands.
Similarly the idea that it is unacceptable for a bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels to tell Britons what to do (through EU law and directives) lurks in the back of people’s mind and it is periodically reinforced by the likes of the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage (ironically himself an MEP or member of the European Parliament).
But despite all these rumblings of discontent, are Britons dissatisfied enough with the existing state of affairs to want to change things? Will they want to give up the privilege of visa-free travel through Europe? Will they want to forfeit the right to work anywhere in Europe?
The question of right of employment has rankled somewhat with many in the UK, as the last decade has seen an influx of East European labour with very good skills and an excellent work ethic. This has shaken up local complacency. The notion that Polish and other workers were stealing jobs and milking the system by claiming allowances such as child benefit for their families is one of the points on which people felt strongly and on which the PM was able to get some slight concession in his recent negotiations with EU officials.
The open borders and the cooperative model of the Union are remarkable given that the 20th century was punctuated by two terrible and bloody world wars which divided Europe so bitterly. But the union is under pressure not just because of Britain’s discontent but also because of the increasing waves of displaced people fleeing their homelands (because of conflicts in which the EU has actually played a role). There has been much disagreement among EU countries on the question of accepting refugees and migrants and this is still a volatile issue.
But one side-effect of the European alliance question has always been divisions and intrigues within political parties. This time the most recognisable of those Tories in the ‘Out’ camp is Tory MP and London mayor Boris Johnson. The mop-haired Johnson, who is thought to have ambitions to succeed Cameron as party leader, is a charismatic politician whose buffoonish, garden gnome demeanour belies a shrewd intellect. His decision last Sunday to go with the ‘out’ group raises their profile as well as assures him of continuing publicity. But many think Johnson may well have miscalculated on this occasion.
Brexit may not have been a good call for Boris.