The U.K’s European Referendum Is Like a Bad Sequel to the Scottish Independence Vote

British Prime Minister David Cameron holds a question and answer session with students at University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, Britain Feb. 29, 2016.
Stefan Rousseau—Reuters/Pool British Prime Minister David Cameron holds a question and answer session with students at University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, Britain Feb. 29, 2016.

Brexiters are using the same tactics and rhetoric as the Scottish independence advocates

The problem with sequels, as any cinema aficionado knows, is that though they look and sound like the original they must also offer something novel, some new twist, to prevent them from being little more than a hackneyed rehash of a movie you’ve seen before. And the problem with that new twist is that, almost invariably, it strains credulity to the point at which the audience’s attention — and patience — snaps. The final verdict can be cruel: we’ve seen this movie before and it was better then.

Such, at any rate, is the feeling in Scotland as the United Kingdom prepares to decide whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. We have been down this road before, you see. June’s referendum, it is already clear, will in many respects be both a sequel to and a remake of 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. All the same tunes are being played; all the same arguments are being heard. It is all very familiar.

David Cameron’s critics — most of whom can be found within his own Conservative party — complain that the government, whose official position favors an ‘In’ vote, should be called “Project Fear” just as the pro-British, Unionist, campaign in Scotland was sardonically dubbed “Project Fear” by one of its own strategists. The aim was simple: remind voters at every opportunity of all the costs and unknown consequences of Scottish independence. If voters could not be persuaded to love Britain, they could at least be terrified by the thought of a leap into the dark unknown waters of independence.

The Unionist campaign in Scotland asked a pair of basic questions: How much will independence cost you and are you prepared to pay that price? Scots, as it turned out, were cautious enough to endorse the constitutional status quo and “Project Fear” eked out a 55-45 victory. It prevailed but it did so joylessly and there was a sense, even amongst voters who opposed independence, that the campaign could have benefitted from a greater measure of uplifting optimism.

Unionist strategists, however, had done their research. Their focus groups told them that vital swing voters were surprisingly — even shockingly — unattached to the idea of Britain. What, these voters, wanted to know, was in it for them? They would base their vote in large part on the outcome of a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Their heads would rule their hearts and emotional pleas to vote one way or the other left them cold.

A similar, indeed exactly identical, dynamic may be observed in the forthcoming E.U. referendum. If the Scottish referendum was a question of identity as well as of accountancy, the E.U. plebiscite is simply a judgement of what best suits the British national interest. It will, for many voters, prove an entirely bloodless affair. The E.U. is not much loved and there is no prospect of it being embraced with any great enthusiasm by the British people. “What’s in it for us?” will prove the order of the day.

No wonder, then, that Cameron prefers to call his campaign “Project Fact.” He argues that Britain’s national interest is best served by remaining a member of the E.U., albeit that Britain will remain, thanks to its opt-outs from the common european currency and other significant parts of the european project, a semi-detached part of the E.U. club. Even so, however, he knows that he must raise the costs of exit, just as Unionists (including Cameron) hyped the uncertainties that would undoubtedly follow Scottish independence.

So Cameron and other enthusiasts for an In vote relentlessly point out the difficulties involved in extricating Britain from the E.U. Agreeing a trade relationship with Brussels would not be as simple as all that, they say, arguing that it could take years — perhaps even a decade — before a deal was completed. And in the intervening period? Uncertainty upon uncertainty. As if that were not enough, Britain’s security also apparently depends upon being a member of the E.U. club. Safer In than Out, in other words, and better safe than sorry. Leaving, Cameron says would be a “great leap in the dark” while George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, warns of the “profound economic shock” that would follow a vote to leave.

All of which leaves campaigners for leaving — the so-called Brexit — seething just as supporters of Scottish independence griped when precisely the same warnings were issued during the Scottish referendum. The problem for them then, and for the Out campaign now, is that this kind of negative campaigning has a long, if also grubby, history of prevailing.

Supporters of leaving the E.U. complain that all they are asking is to be a “normal” country. It is time, they say, Britain reclaimed its “independence” and freed itself from the bondage of Brussels. Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare secretary and former leader of the Conservative Party, complained at the weekend that “The In campaign’s whole strategy seems to be about basically saying we’re too small, we’re too little.” The Prime Minister, he suggested, seemed to have “a low opinion of British people” and their ability to make an informed choice about their future. In any case, everything will be better if Britain leaves the E.U. Outers, desperate to reassure voters who wonder why they need to wrestle with the known unknowns of life outside the E.U., stress that there are no downsides to Brexit.

Veterans of the Scottish referendum could only smile grimly at all of this. Because they have seen it all before. Campaigners for Scottish independence stressed that they simply sought to be a “normal” country, free from the complicated entanglements of the British union — a union in which Scotland must inevitably be overshadowed by its much larger, southern neighbor. Suggestions that Scotland might endure some economic privation after independence were met by furious accusations that this was “talking Scotland down.” Unionists, it was said — albeit with little evidence to support the theory — believed Scotland was “too wee, too stupid, too poor” to thrive as an independent state. And, desperate to win votes any way they could, nationalists promised an economic windfall if only Scotland had the courage to vote yes. Britain was thwarting Scotland’s potential just as, Outers now claim, the E.U. is an anachronistic brake on Britain’s future prosperity. It is, they say, an analogue political project in a digital age. Here too, echoes of the Scottish referendum are inescapable.

So all these tunes — in all their glorious fury — have been heard before. But if the campaign strategies — Project Fear versus Project Reassurance — and rhetoric are tediously familiar there is one large difference. Even Cameron admits that Britain would hardly be broken by leaving the E.U. whereas the Scottish referendum was a plebiscite on the future existence of the U.K. itself. In that respect, this sequel is of less account. What it lacks in novelty it also lacks in importance.

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