As you no doubt know, the big Brexit referendum is tomorrow. I have no basis to even hazard a guess as to how this will go, but I will note that in a relatively similar and relatively recent referendum, the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, the remain/status quo option significantly (by 5% or more depending on the poll) outperformed all of its polling in the run up to the actual vote. Now I don’t have facts to back this up
but it seems reasonable to me that in a vote like this, where one choice offers the potential for a great reward but also carries some massive potential risks, that undecideds might break hard for maintaining the status quo in the campaign’s final days and hours. People tend to be risk averse, and whatever Brexit’s merits might be, Britain’s departure from the EU would put the entire continent, and especially the UK, into some uncharted waters. Indeed, concerns about what may come after Brexit seem to be gaining currency among British voters as the vote approaches.
Of course, in the case of the 2014 Scottish referendum, “remain” was the consistent leader in the polls all the way through the campaign. You can’t say the same thing here–the BBC’s poll tracker has “remain” barely up on “leave,” but “leave” has been gaining on and even occasionally moving past “remain” for a few weeks now. But if this referendum mimics the 2014 vote, the 45% that “remain” is polling could well translate to 50% or more once the votes are counted. Then again, maybe this vote doesn’t parallel that 2014 vote at all and I’m totally off base. Again, I’m not really in a position to try to predict how this vote will go.
I will also note, though, that prediction markets are favoring “remain,” and those can often be more accurate than any single poll.
While Britain was fortunate to negotiate an arrangement that allowed it to join the union without having to adopt the Euro, there are still compelling reasons why it might want to leave:
There are a lot of bad things about the European Union: its common agricultural policy is starving Africa; its vast fiscal apparatuses are forcing poorer states to cut any provision for their most vulnerable citizens; its ruling bodies are either undemocratic or uncomfortably full of fascists; the whole thing acts as a mechanism through which the European ruling classes can exploit a steadily more immiserated population. For all its faults, though, one of the bad things about the EU is not that it requires the British government to pay in-work benefits to European nationals.
I would argue that during the Grexit affair, in which its institutions repeatedly attempted to undermine an elected Greek government, the EU was shown not only to be undemocratic but in fact anti-democratic. On the other hand, the EU’s one elected component, its legislature, is so powerless as to be almost irrelevant. And for all those problems, the one concession UK Prime Minister David Cameron wrung out of Brussels in an effort to forestall this referendum was…the in-work benefits thing, which basically allows British employers to stiff foreign workers relative to British workers. Yippee.
Cameron’s push to alleviate British employers of the burden of treating immigrant workers as fully human reflects everything that’s been wrong with the Brexit campaign from the start. Instead of focusing on the genuine problems with the EU, the “leave” side has been commandeered by right-wing xenophobes like former London mayor and naked Tory mole rat Boris Johnson and UKIP’s racist Mr. Ed impersonator (ask your parents) Nigel Farage
to push their ugly anti-immigrant agenda (which in Johnson’s case may just be a cynical ploy to unseat Cameron; Farage, on the other hand, is Britain’s David Duke). What could have been a forthright discussion about real EU flaws and the possibility of reform has instead been a campaign appealing to British fears about hordes of migrants flowing over the English Channel.
The ugliness of the “Leave” campaign was put into sharp relief last Thursday, when Labour Party MP Jo Cox, a staunch pro-“Remain” voice, was murdered after meeting with her constituents. The man arrested for her killing, Thomas Mair, has been described as “mentally ill” but was also a right-wing zealot who clearly targeted Cox for her views on the EU referendum. You can’t blame Cox’s murder on Johnson, Farage, or their right-wing fellow travelers. But the fact is that when you keep scaring people by telling them that their lives and livelihoods are threatened by some terrifying Other that is forever coming to get them, eventually there’s a good chance that somebody will snap.
So not only do I not know what Britain is going to do, I don’t really have much of an opinion as to what it should do. Like I said, there is a very compelling left-wing argument against the EU, and particularly against British membership in the EU:
As a consequence of these mistakes, the British left risks throwing away the one institution which it has, historically, been able to use effectively—the democratic state—in favor of a constitutional order tailor-made for the interests of global capitalism and managerial politics. As the jurisprudence of the EU has developed, it has consistently undermined standard left policies such as state aid to industries and nationalization. Constitutional structures that are largely outside the reach of citizens have, in the modern world, tended almost invariably to block the kind of radical policies that the left has traditionally believed in. The central fact about the EU, which the British governing class has never really got its head around, is that it creates a written constitution and ancillary juridical structures that are extremely hard to alter. Neither British politicians nor the British electorate are used to this, since Britain has never had such a thing, and they are treating the referendum as if it were a general election campaign, with short-term victories that could be reversed in a few years, rather than something with the long-term implications of the votes in 1788 on the American constitution.
The possibility of a real reemergence of left-wing politics in Britain (or anywhere else in Europe) seems remote so long as the EU stays locked in its center-right technocratic ideology, and it’s very hard to fathom how that could change. On the other hand, a victory for Brexit at this point is a victory for the ugliest parts of the British right, and it will take time for the British left to overcome that, if it ever does.