Euan McColm: England will be scarred by EU vote

Few voters will care whether or not Cameron wrests concessions from the EU. Picture: Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images
Few voters will care whether or not Cameron wrests concessions from the EU. Picture: Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images
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AS STATEMENTS of the ­obvious go, it ranked as bleedin’. The former leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, declared last week that Prime Minister David Cameron was “not looking very likely” to secure reforms in Britain’s relationship with Europe that would justify remaining in the EU.

Of course, Howard’s credentials as a Eurosceptic are well established. It would be astonishing to hear him concede that circumstances might arise that would make desirable Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. But Lord Howard was right about the likelihood of the PM striking a deal of substance.

Cameron is currently performing an elaborate charade in which he is seeking new rules of engagement between Britain and the EU. The pro-Europe Prime Minister claims he’s making real progress in tough negotiations with his fellow leaders even though he really isn’t.

But he has to do something to keep his party’s Eurosceptics – and, more importantly, those voters who might be open to their “leave the EU” message – happy. And so, we watch him pretend he can somehow win preferential treatment for Britain within Europe across a number of areas when, palpably, he cannot.

Certain countries – Germany and France, for example – are clearly keen to assist Cameron in creating the impression that he can significantly alter Britain’s relationship with the EU. Many other countries will ensure that the Prime Minister can do no such thing.

But how much difference could any kind of new deal with Europe make to the outcome of the referendum 
on our membership? Are facts ­important?

A lesson from the Scottish independence referendum campaign is that when voters are asked to wrestle with issues affecting their personal identities, facts don’t necessarily make a whit of difference.

If one believes in an independent Scotland, inconvenient truths about the implications of such a state of affairs are unlikely to shake one’s faith. Likewise, many of those who feel a strong sense of British identity are just as powerfully driven by emotion over logic. Why should things be any different when it comes to the referendum on Europe?

In the past, we’ve been less engaged in debate over membership of the EU in Scotland than our neighbours in England. That’s because we’ve had a debate – on strikingly similar terms – on the future of our membership of the UK.

The rhetoric delivered by Scottish Nationalists and EU Outers is strikingly similar in tone: Scotland/Britain is being held back by the UK/EU; they (whoever they might be) don’t hold the same values as us; breaking the ties that bind would be painless and enthusiastically supported by those from whom we propose to split.

Why, then, if the arguments are identical, shouldn’t the power of emotion – with all its ignorable irrationalities – also play its part in the EU referendum? Of course it will.

Speculation currently has the Prime Minister planning a referendum for June, thus avoiding a long campaign during which his opponents might gain real momentum. Cameron saw what happened in Scotland during 2013/14 when support for independence rose from less than 30 per cent to 45 per cent and it was more than enough to convince him a long campaign was a bad idea.

Polls – and, yes, after predicting the result of last year’s general election so spectacularly inaccurately, pollsters are not necessarily the authorities we once considered them – show UK voters fairly evenly divided on the issue of whether we should remain in the EU. A survey of 2,000 people by ORB, conducted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, showed 52 per cent in favour of leaving.

We cannot state with certainty that the murders in the French capital influenced those polled, but we may speculate. It is certainly the case that the same pollsters found a majority in favour of remaining in the EU when they asked the same question before last November’s attacks.

Matters of immigration and foreign policy, which inflame passions, will be a potent part of the debate as the referendum draws close. Asylum seekers will be demonised, nonsensical fictions about the danger they present will gain traction. There will be ugly nationalism.

As the debate gets more fractious, nobody, on either side, is going to give a stuff about whether Cameron wheedled his way out of a couple of clauses on the EU constitution. For those who care passionately, their beliefs are a crucial part of their identities. EU Outers – many of whom have been campaigning for a referendum since Britain first took a seat at the European table more then 40 years ago – will be just as passionate in their arguments as Scottish Nationalists were in 2014. And those who reject the Outers’ arguments will, it’s reasonable to presume, respond with the same vehement rejection as unionists did to Yes Scotland’s often fanciful claims.

There was a time when it was considered probable that after Scotland’s independence referendum had been and gone, our politics would return to some kind of normality. The new normality, however, is for all political arguments to return to the constitution.

And while politicians struggle to move on from that bruising campaign, so do voters. Policies on the issues we generally consider important – education, health, justice – are less important than whether a party is in favour of or against independence.

It looks like England is on its way towards replicating this division. Polls suggest that the outcome of the EU referendum will be close. As we know from our experience in Scotland, such a result can create tensions.

Should Cameron play his part in leading the “In” campaign to victory, he will have to deal with an angry, disappointed “Out” campaign, many of whose members are also Tories. He should expect them to be as unforgiving as thwarted Yes voters have been since September 2014.

As we look towards the referendum, it’s difficult to predict what way the vote will go. But we can say with some certainty that the result will leave England divided, just as Scotland now is.