By one way of looking at it, the vote on Thursday will be the latest in a long line of attempts by Britain to find the ‘role’ that she lost – as US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said in 1962 – when she was parted from her empire. It would be nice to think that it might also be the last stage, and that we can put all that empire stuff behind us after June 23rd; but does anyone think that either side will accept the result if it goes against them? Of course they’ll cry foul. There are already conspiracy theories being posted on the web claiming that the atrocious murder of Jo Cox was in fact a ‘false flag’ operation, arranged by a secret cabal of ‘Remainers’ to garner the sympathy vote for their cause. (Here’s one example: http://alternative-right.blogspot.com/2016/06/conspiracy-corner-killing-of-jo-cox.html.) Without going quite that far, Farage today complained that Cameron was at least milking the murder to that end. On the Remain side, much is being made of the false propaganda (and it is false) used by the Brexiters to fool voters that, for example, £350 million a week net is going to Europe, and that Turkey is about to become a member of the EU.
From a neutral point of view it’s easy to argue – as I have done (https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/) – that the vote won’t be about Britain’s place in Europe in any case, but rather about Tory austerity, getting rid of the Etonians, and people’s general discontent. Many voters will be attracted – or repelled – simply by the personalities of the men leading the debate. (Nearly all men. If only more women had come forward, or been allowed, to participate! At the very least that must have moderated the tone of the debate.) Anything but Europe per se. Any grievance will do, to land a blow on the Tory party, in this first chance the electorate has had for a year to get back at this minority out-of-touch austerity government which is the real fount – not the EU – of most of its miseries. It really is going to be difficult to vote for a cause led by Cameron and Osborne in these circumstances, even in pursuit of what you may feel is a greater good. It will certainly stick in my craw. It’s only the prospect of those other Tory clowns – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage – taking over, that strengthens my resolve. So I’ll not really be voting on the ‘issue’, either.
In any event, who is really bothered today about Britain’s ‘role’ or ‘place’ in either Europe or the world? (Apart from sporting.) A few leading politicians, probably, for whom it comes with the territory. But your ordinary Joe – or Jo? Workers (if there are any left), shop assistants, bus drivers, doctors, nurses, teachers, academics scribbling their books and blogs in provincial towns? – In fact scarcely anyone seems to be looking at the international implications of the vote, either way; just at what they think it can do for them, personally and selfishly. All the propaganda is addressed to that. Nothing on what it will do to Europe, or to the stability of the world. We really are – to adapt Napoleon’s notorious bon mot – just a nation of shoppers, oblivious to broader and higher things. In a way that might be said to answer Dean Acheson’s point. This – a country of consumers – is our new ‘role’.
From Europe’s point of view the whole appalling debate has severely undermined that ‘role’, or at least our reputation and image. Continental press reaction (judging by the Swedish papers) is a mixture of disbelief, mockery and fright. (See https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/the-stupidest-nation-on-earth/.) It’s all very insalubrious, and embarrassing for someone who lives abroad much of the time. I’m used to having to apologise for the empire; now I’ve got to try to excuse this. What an awful misjudgment it was, to call a referendum at this time! It could destroy us, whichever way it goes. Cameron will never be forgiven for it. At least poor, weak John Major was able to face his Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ down.
But it will be exciting. I’ll be watching it on TV. Either that or the disaster movie on the other side.
For what it’s worth, I predict a ‘Remain’ win, by about seven points. That’s based on nothing but gut feeling. I know it goes against today’s poll findings, but they’ve been notoriously wrong before. We’ll see, in three days’ time.