Just three weeks now to go until Britain votes, on 23 June, on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union.
Opinion polls on the subject have been close for a long time, but generally showing a clear lead for the “remain” option. In the last few weeks (see Wikipedia’s compilation here) that advantage has mostly disappeared, and “leave” is now running almost neck-and-neck. Some of the EU leaders are sounding worried.
There’s nothing unusual about polls tightening as a referendum campaign gets going; that’s very much the normal pattern. But right at the end, when people have to make a decision for real, one side or the other often draws away, so that what looked like being close turns out not to be at all.
That’s what happened in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. For a long time the “no” vote had a commanding lead in the polls, but that narrowed sharply during the campaign period. A week or two out it looked as if the “yes” vote might catch up. But its momentum fizzled, and in the end “no” won quite comfortably, with 55.3%. (A vote to leave Europe, however, might well give the Scots another chance.)
For what it’s worth, my guess is that much the same thing will happen this time: in the final days romantic enthusiasm will give way to realism and fear of the unknown, and Britain will vote to stay put. But there are a couple of reasons for thinking that it might not play out quite that way.
One is that, by all accounts, the “remain” campaign has been making a real mess of things. On the Conservative side, hatred of the EU, of immigrants and of the prime minister, David Cameron, have become an indistinguishable whole, which now clearly represents the large majority of the Tory rank and file. Win or lose, Cameron is going to be battling for survival once the referendum is over.
Labour is much more strongly pro-EU, but is reluctant, understandably enough, to be associated too closely with the government. The stresses of the campaign are not doing anything to help its internal tensions, with leader Jeremy Corbyn still deeply distrusted by most of his senior colleagues.
The other problem that “remain” faces is that most referendum questions have a simple yes/no structure, with politicians pushing a proposal (independence, a republic, abolition of the Senate, whatever) and the forces of doubt and inertia favoring a “no” vote.
But the EU referendum isn’t like this. Although “remain” is the status quo option, it’s also the option backed by “the politicians” – Cameron, Corbyn and the dreaded foreigners in Brussels. It’s the supporters of change, for once, who can present themselves as representing grassroots opinion and hostility to the establishment.
As we’ve noted many times before, the British don’t seem to feel “European” in the way people on the continent might; the argument for “remain” has been very much on the practical, not the emotional, level. And being practical people, I suspect that’s the way they will end up voting. Certainly the punters think so: you can still get odds of 11-4 against a “leave” victory.
But don’t bet the house on it.