Britain has always been plagued with doubts about its relationship with Europe. When the steel and coal union was formed, Britain opted to stay out of it. Later, despite its efforts to join the club, Charles de Gaulle blackballed the British entry. When Britain finally became a member of the European community in 1973, the membership was put to referendum with both pro and anti-membership groups arguing it out in public with great passion.
In 1975, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had called for the EU referendum to resolve the party’s bitter divisions over Europe. Labour’s Left represented by Tony Benn and its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, constituted the anti-membership group, which also included Peter Shore from the Right. Despite predictions of a close result in 1975, the pro-membership group won with 67 per cent. Thus the Labour Party was saved intact.
As for the Conservative Party, divisions over Europe run too deep. There is a strong nationalist-minded current with the Conservatives, which has steadfastly opposed British membership of the EU. And this Eurosceptic wing of the party has been influential within the party.
In 2006, David Cameron, on becoming the leader of the party, criticised Eurosceptics among the party for over-obsession with Europe. This wing of the party has got a renewed lease of life after rise of the anti-EU and xenophobic party, United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP).
UKIP has managed to peel off a sizable number of nationalist-minded voters from the Conservative Party. Pressed on by the Eurosceptic wing and the UKIP, David Cameron announced a referendum on British membership of the EU to dilute Eurosceptic within the party. This strategy was a re-run of Harold Wilson’s of the 1975 referendum.
To prepare his pro-European pitch, Cameron made a big play of his negotiation with other EU heads of state to obtain concession. The EU obliged him with symbolic concessions to parade them to British electorate as successes. David Cameron came away satisfied and pledged to put his heart and soul into making a pro-European case.
However, realising the depth of differences over Europe within the party, David Cameron gave his cabinet colleagues and members of the parliament complete freedom to campaign according to their convictions. This has resulted in a deeply divided cabinet with key ministers Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Ian Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling leading the charge for Leave campaign.
Read also: The European question
The Leave camp is further boosted by the inclusion of Boris Johnson, ex-mayor of London.
The Leave camp is largely concentrating on huge UK money going into EU coffers, loss of national sovereignty and border control and the rising immigration as the reasons for leaving the EU. The Remain camp lists protection of workers’ rights, preservation of NHS, economic prosperity as reasons for staying within the EU.
Both the Remain and Leave campaigns are evenly balanced according to the most polls conducted. The Remain campaign has support of vast membership of the Labor Party, Liberal Democrats, SNP, leadership and sections of the Conservative Party and the Welsh Nationalist Party. Yet the Leave campaign is mainly led by UKIP, parts of the Conservative Party and a section of the Labour Party.
Looking at the way political forces are arrayed, the Remain campaign should be home comfortably. Yet, worryingly, the Leave campaign seems to be closing the gap. Latest opinion polls put the Leave campaign in the lead for the first time. This has prompted a flurry of activity from the top Labor Party figures to recover the electoral ground lost to the leave side in recent years. During the last week, both the current party leader Jeremy Corbyn and the ex-party leader Gordon Brown have been on the campaign trails to enthuse the Labour Party supporters.
The Leave campaign’s trump card is the toxic issue of immigration. Over the last decade, Britain has seen a new wave of immigrants after expansion of the EU to the Eastern and Central Europe. Britain is unable to control this flow because of the principle of freedom of movement, which is the cornerstone of the EU’s immigration policy. This has caused consternation among the anti-immigrant lobby that is well represented in the mainstream and tabloid media, nationalist and anti-EU parties, and anti-immigration think-tanks such as the Migration Watch.
In the anti-immigration narrative, the immigrants are portrayed as job-poachers, benefit-cheats and health tourists. While immigration is definitely the driving factor, a vast bulk of the British public opinion has historically been ambivalent about Europe too. This ambivalence dates to the 18th century when British foreign policy was powered by the notion of splendid isolation. Britain’s role was that of a distant balancer of power relation in Europe. Britain saw herself distantly involved in the European project.
In recent surveys, the British public opinion largely identified itself with Anglo-Saxon rather than European values. This ambivalence will show up in the recent EU referendum.
A significant part of the public opinion still remains undecided despite the EU referendum debate killed to death in print, broadcast and social media. The British media is saturated with wall-to-wall coverage of the EU referendum with the Leave campaign stirring the basest instincts of people around immigration and British identity.
With only less than a week to go before the referendum, Britain is agonising over the elemental decision of entire history. The country is split down the middle as a result of fear-mongering from the Leave campaign. Tabloid papers, such as the Daily Mail are in the vanguard of the Leave campaign.
Even on the day of the Orlando tragedy, the Daily Mail chose not to headline the Orlando tragedy in the US. Instead, the paper’s lead story was about the imagined flood of the UK with Turkish immigrants as a result of the soon to be formalised visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the post-referendum scene is not likely to be smooth sailing for David Cameron who has staked his career on one of the most divisive issue inside his own party.