Russell Gunson: EU vote in many ways just as important as indyref

In Scotland, the EU referendum campaign has not reached the levels of excitement seen during 2014's independence referendum. However, the implications of the EU vote, are in many ways just as important.
Ballot Boxes and voting materials are checked ahead of the EU Referendum. Picture Scott LoudenBallot Boxes and voting materials are checked ahead of the EU Referendum. Picture Scott Louden
Ballot Boxes and voting materials are checked ahead of the EU Referendum. Picture Scott Louden

For those of us in Scotland, the EU referendum campaign has often been a strange case of déjà vu. The arguments, tactics, and many of the characters involved seem strangely reminiscent of the arguments and tactics seen in Scotland’s debate. Even some of the speeches seem to have been borrowed from the independence debate, and could have been delivered nearly line for line. We’ve seen use of the ‘best of both worlds’ language to describe remaining a member of the EU, and signatures have been gathered from business leaders and economists as supposed proof that one side or the other is right. There have been interventions from President Obama, the Bank of England and the IFS, just like in the lead up to September 2014, and a constant drum beat of projections on job losses, recessions and declining living standards if we vote one way or another. Even the NHS is being employed once more on both sides of the debate, just as it was in Scotland a couple of years ago.

It may be no surprise then that the EU referendum debate in Scotland has not caught fire as it has in the rest of the UK, and certainly not to the extent of the amazing debate we had in Scotland in 2014. There has been a sense, somehow, that this vote is not as important as the last one. But that sense is wrong: this vote is, in many ways, just as important as the independence referendum of two years ago.

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IPPR Scotland has no position on the EU referendum, but it is clear that a leave or a remain vote would have important implications across Scotland. What would a remain or a leave vote mean for Scotland’s world leading universities and our research capacity, our whisky industry, immigration into Scotland, security, tourism in Scotland, our financial services industry, and of course the oil and gas sector? Yet even now, many voters are unclear on the answers to those questions.

The two campaigns, Remain and Leave, have struggled with many of the same structural issues that the yes and no campaigns grappled with. How do you bring momentum to an essentially status quo position, making it other than just a ‘more of the same’ option? Equally importantly, how do you make the status quo option the optimistic choice, one that will leave you, your family, community and country better off? Equally, how does voting for change not begin to look like a scary choice, particularly as we get closer to decision day, too big a risk to take with peoples’ families, jobs and lives? And what would this option be like in reality? Can voters picture it?

The economy, jobs and living standards have been a focus of both sides of the debate, and in particular Remain in the last few weeks. We have seen analysis from the Treasury, the IMF, the IFS and the Bank of England, all projecting damage to the UK economy if the UK leaves the EU. However, on the other side of the debate, those in favour of leaving the EU, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, point to a lack of accuracy in predictions in the past from these very same organisations, especially when making projections many decades into the future. They also point out that the £8.5bn (just under 0.47% of GDP) that is spent, in essence, as a membership fee of the EU, could be spent differently, boosting the economy or protecting public services.

Equally, many wishing to leave the EU see an opportunity to control the UK’s borders, and in particular immigration into the UK. While the UK still has border checks, even for EU nationals (as we are not a member of what’s called the Schengen zone), all EU citizens have the right to freedom of movement. Leaving the EU could mean that EU citizens would no longer have that right. The argument goes that, therefore, the UK could reduce EU immigration. However, on the other side of the debate, the Remain campaign points to the other European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, who see higher per-capita immigration despite being outside of the EU, and argues that migrants bring economic benefits. For them, it is less the EU and more relative economic growth that drives immigration. For others though, for right or for wrong, the migration argument is not about economics.

And come what may, for many, the issue of identity will be the reason they vote one way or the other. Regardless of concerns about sovereignty, the economy, or immigration, some will feel European and at home with being in the EU, while others will feel British or Scottish to the exclusion of a wider European identity. There will be voters for whom being better or worse off is not as important as whom they regard as ‘them’ and ‘us’. Interestingly, however, while many polls show that a majority in Scotland support remaining within the EU, this seems to be on pragmatic grounds rather than an emotional feeling of being European.

The two campaigns have been making similarly strong statements about the implications of Brexit on employment rights, the environment, mobile phone costs, the currency, and many more issues. The arguments, albeit of varying strength and weakness, seem to point in all directions at the same time. You can see why voters may disengage or be confused.

Ultimately, for many, it will come down to whom, if anyone, they trust. Trust will be the issue that cuts across all others. At a time when faith in politicians, media, bankers and big businesses is low, hearing those same establishment figures outline why it would be best for you to vote one way or another may actually be the last advice many voters would take. According to opinion polls, only Nicola Sturgeon may be the exception, in Scotland at least.

The weight, strength and balance of evidence is almost certainly not even on all of the issues – but as a voter you would be forgiven for missing that. The volume of the debate is loud, and the volume of information from both sides may be overwhelming for many individual voters. This is what often leads to the call for more facts from those trying to make up their minds. But it is likely less a lack of information that voters are suffering from, and more an ability to judge which evidence to believe and from whom. Who are the trusted sources in this debate?

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While the content of the debate has been on the issues, the tone has been very much about personality (particularly some strong personalities within the UK Conservative party), and the arguments that seem to have attracted most public attention have been risks and downsides – whether of leaving or of remaining. The more people feel bullied or harangued, or that they are only begrudgingly lending their support to one side or the other, the lesson from Scotland seems to be that, the more we will see further erosion in levels of trust following the vote. That is a salutary lesson for all sides of the debate, and one raised by Nicola Sturgeon during the campaign.

Opinion polls in Scotland seem overwhelmingly supportive of remaining within the EU. However, how soft that support is will be tested by the result. Pragmatic, ‘hold your nose’ support for remaining in the EU may be much more susceptible to evaporating on the day.

This EU referendum, in many ways, is as important as the Scottish independence referendum, and particularly so given how close the vote might be across the UK. Whether voters in Scotland are thinking predominantly of Scotland or the UK when they cast their vote, if the UK-wide vote is as close as some polls suggest, then turnout in Scotland could genuinely have the final say on the decision of the UK as a whole. Equally, a vote to leave across the UK and a vote to remain in Scotland could lead to stronger calls for a second Scottish independence referendum over the coming years. Whom voters in Scotland trust could be crucial to the outcome of the EU referendum.

Russell Gunson is director of IPPR Scotland