Breaking down in tears, Anthony Dunn recalled being branded a traitor and told he should leave the country for campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union ahead of Thursday’s vote (23 June).
After a campaign filled with confusing and often misleading claims, the 58-year-old Londoner is among many Britons horrified at the way the run-up to the historic referendum has divided their society.
“The most shocking thing about this entire referendum is how deeply personal it has become and how immensely hurtful,” Dunn told AFP after attending a television debate.
Shaking with anger, he blamed Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, who pressed for the referendum and have led the rival campaigns.
“I am appalled at what the Tories have done to this country. They are ripping us apart,” he said.
Both sides of the EU debate have accused each other of lies and scaremongering, dubbing each other “Project Fear” and “Project Hate” respectively, and both were criticised by independent bodies for misrepresenting facts.
The often aggressive tone of the debate has caused disquiet in many quarters, particularly after the murder of pro-European lawmaker Jo Cox last week, but political analysts are expecting a high turnout.
“While negative campaigning can put some people off, it also mobilises people,” said Paul Whiteley, professor of government at the University of Essex.
“Everybody, even if they don’t understand this or feel confused, think it’s important,” he told AFP.
Passions are high as the debate has focused on two key issues — the risk that leaving could cause an economic shock, or the unwelcome prospect of further mass migration from other EU countries if Britain stays in the bloc.
Britons in general have no great love of the EU and for most people in the past decade it has been a side issue.
Research by Ipsos Mori published this month found significant misconceptions on issues such as the level of EU inward investment — which was underestimated — to the numbers of EU citizens living in Britain — strongly overestimated.
Polling experts say the campaign has in fact made little difference to public opinion on which way to vote, with the polls close since January with a few brief exceptions.
A Sky News online poll on Wednesday found that 75% of respondents did not think the campaigns had been helpful, with 40% even saying they had been actively unhelpful.
‘Fears and emotion’
Sara Hobolt, a professor in European studies at the London School of Economics, said few voters would have been enlightened by the campaign.
“It has become very negative and quite focused on people’s fears and emotion, as opposed to trying to give a more nuanced set of information about what the EU is about,” she told AFP.
The emphasis on the economy and immigration has given both sides a clear narrative but at the risk of excluding information on other issues, Hobolt said.
“It’s hard to sift through the information and find out what the actual facts are,” agreed Daniel Worwood, a 25-year-old engineering PhD student from northwest England who is backing Leave.
Things are not helped by the fact that the main political parties are themselves divided on the referendum, although Conservative leader Cameron and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn both back Remain.
Amid the confusion there is also concern about the divisive impact of the campaign, in particular the relentless focus on immigration of those backing a Brexit.
The Daily Mirror, which supports a Remain vote, has described it as “the most divisive, vile and unpleasant political campaign in living memory”.
One of the most contentious posters of the campaign was one published by the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), showing a long queue of refugees under the headline “Breaking Point”.
The murder of Jo Cox, a passionate pro-European who had campaigned for Syrian refugees, brought only a temporary respite in the campaign.
A YouGov poll this week found that 50% of the public — and 70% of Remain voters — thought the referendum had made British society more divided.
“There has been lots of confusing information and anecdotes and lies, which I don’t appreciate,” said Chet Patel, a 44-year-old telecoms worker in London who wants to stay in.
“I think a lot of people have not understood the real issues in fact. And hence they are not sure which way to vote.”
- 23 June: Referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union
- 28-29 June: EU summit in Brussels