Britain’s shy sceptics and the ‘No Thanks’ vote

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Poppy appeal

Chelsea pensioners selling poppies for Remembrance Day. [UK Ministry of Defence/Flickr]

Opinion polls currently point to a clear victory for the ‘Yes’ camp in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. But those who are shy in declaring their voting intentions could foil the pollsters, writes Dr Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist working as Director of the Vienna Institute for Go-Governance. This article originally appeared in German in the Wiener Zeitung.

The current mess surrounding Grexit confirms the worst suspicions of many in Britain, namely that the whole European project is ultimately doomed to failure. It is just a question of time. Britain joined the EU in the 1970s, at a time of economic downturn and domestic political chaos. In the minds of many, Europe was associated with decline and loss of grandeur. Some in the older generation hanker after a lost “golden age” still symbolised in “British Empire” medals awarded to mark the Queen’s birthday. Younger people on the other hand are more pro-Europe and are attracted by the greater mobility offered.

A few years ago, when David Cameron announced his intention to hold an exit referendum, he mentioned that support for the EU was just “wafer thin”. Today polls are predicting a clear “Yes” to stay in.

But those who are shy in declaring voting intentions, out of fear of seeming “reactionary” could yet foil the pollsters. And should the polls indicate a clear victory for the “Yes” camp, there is a risk that “don’t knows” will chance putting a cross by “No” as some kind of anti-Establishment protest. It only needs the EU to pop up with an idea similar to the one standardising olive oil cruets in restaurants, and the vote could be lost.

But in the UK today, referenda are accepted to legitimise transfers of power as in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. By law and consensus, the introduction of the euro would be subject to a referendum as would other major transfers of power upwards to the EU. The defence of national interests does not so it is argued, fit in the European project, but addressing public concerns should.

The current debate concerning EU migrants in the UK is connected with a welfare system, which is more attractive in comparison with many other countries. Failure to reform this would reduce the referendum to a plebiscite on immigration, providing welcome fodder for the right wing. There are many contradictory legal opinions on blocking payments for migrant workers which are in need of clarification and consistency. If the EU was able to be proactive and flexible, then resorting to a referendum would not be so necessary to deal with such issues.

The EU has to show it is serious about reforms. The United Kingdom Independence Party says that is mission impossible and exit is the only answer. Tossing Cameron a few crumbs in the hope he can sell a loaf of bread will not be enough to convince a sophisticated electorate. As Churchill said, democracy is about “a little man walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper”. A remark made just before his crushing defeat at the election in 1945. The shy sceptics and the ordinary voter with their little pencils in the end hold the key to British membership in the EU.

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