The rhetoric of 'taking back control'
As I write on the Tuesday, two days before the poll, we are on the verge - but what of, it is hard to tell. The polls tell us things are neck and next between the Leave and Remain sides. The betting odds tell a rather different story. For a week or so the odds on Remain have been shortening. They now stand around 1/4. Over the same period Leave have drifted out to 3/1. Now there is an interesting psychological story there in and of itself. Arguably polling tells us what people think whereas betting is premised on what we think others think. So which is more diagnostic of actual behaviour? Our individualistic culture insists the former. An increasing body of psychological evidence points to the importance of the latter.
But that isn't my major point. I wrote before of how this referendum has been dominated by an anti-politics, by a distrust in politicians as 'them', an elite who serve their own interests rather than ours. The success of the Leave camp has been to realise this better than those in Remain. So we have seen the bizarre spectacle of Eton educated insiders to the Tory high command posing as anti-establishment rebels and proclaiming the need to 'take back control' for the British people - although who exactly would be in control after June 23rd and of what was never clearly articulated. The only unambiguous message is that 'taking back control' means being anti-immigrant.
The Remain camp have failed to counter this slogan. They have failed either to position themselves as at one with 'the people' or to articulate a positive vision for our collective future. They fail to appreciate that they are so deeply distrusted that whatever they say about the perils of Brexit will not be believed. And, if they win the vote - even though they have lost the campaign - it will be because of what others, who are more trusted, have said about the perils of cutting ourselves adrift.
But if Remain does win, does that mean that it is the end of the story and the status quo ante has prevailed? The Scottish experience suggests not. Here the 'No' vote prevailed, even though support for 'Yes' surged over 50% in the campaign. Here a positive vote for 'taking back control' was countered by dire warnings concerning the dangers of separation. However, over the ensuing 18 months the pro-independence political parties, notably the SNP, have surged in support, notably taking 56 of the 59 Scottish parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election.
Why? Well, arguably it was a matter of reactance. People wanted independence in principle, they may have heeded those who told them to be sensible and say no, but at the same time resented them and were further alienated from them. If this is true after the European referendum, the danger is that it will only exacerbate the mood of anti-politics, it will increase the space for populist demagoguery, and it will reinforce anti-immigrant agitation as the symbol of 'taking back control'. There will be much to be done in challenging all these tendencies.
Win or lose, did David Cameron appreciate the forces he would let loose when he decided to back a referendum as a means of settling a little local difficulty in the Tory Party?
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber