Last week the referendum campaign on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union descended into the gutter. On Thursday morning the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) released posters with the slogan “Breaking Point”. It showed Syrian refugees massing on European borders. The implication was clear: remain in the EU and the UK will be overrun with migrants from the Middle East. These followed earlier posters declaring that Prime Minister David Cameron had put the interests of the EU before those of the UK.
On Thursday afternoon Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was shot and stabbed by a man shouting “Put Britain First!” A few hours later she died. It appears that the assailant had links with far-right political groupings. Although he has no particular links with those seeking to quit the EU, his words were a disturbing echo of the slogans of the “quitters”. Despite this, those in the rival campaign (Stronger In) have refrained from making political capital, and also suspended campaigning over the weekend. The quit camp did likewise. There is a lesson here. Divisive, fear-laden and inflammatory rhetoric, particularly of the kind voiced by the quitter camp, poisons the public discourse and ultimately makes responsible democratic politics impossible. Judging by the genuine and heartfelt expressions of grief at the vigils and services for Ms Cox, a comparatively unknown first-term MP, the public — or at least a considerable section of it — understands this.
Some of the quitters also seem to have grasped this. On Monday Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former chairman of the Conservative Party and a supporter of the quit camp, publicly announced that she was defecting to Stronger In. She said that the “hate and xenophobia” of the quit campaign, and particularly the “Breaking Point” poster, had gone too far. Whether the other quitters appreciate the damage they are doing to community relations is, however, a different matter. Suggestions on the social media that there might a link between extreme rhetoric and the vicious mood created by it, in which Ms Cox’s assailant felt licensed to make his attack, have been met with outrage from a number of quitters. They are clearly in denial.
But aside individual high-level defections to Stronger In, will the “Breaking Point” poster and Ms Cox’s death have a more widespread impact in the referendum campaign? They may, perhaps, slightly favour Stronger In, but the result is still impossible to predict and nothing may be taken for granted. The consequences of the result, on the other hand, whatever it may be, are far easier to foresee.
If the vote on Thursday, June 23, is to quit, the consequence will be to plunge the UK into economic, political and constitutional disarray. The sterling is likely to fall quite dramatically. The Bank of England has indicated that in the event of a run on the currency it will have to raise interest rates. Separately, the Conservative chancellor, Mr George Osborne, has said that he will draw up an emergency budget, imposing swingeing cuts on public expenditure.
Conservative MPs in the quitter camp have threatened that they will vote against it. They have also threatened to trigger a leadership challenge to depose Prime Minister David Cameron. If these threats are acted on, the quitters would have embarked on an extraordinarily reckless and irresponsible course at a time of profound constitutional instability, precisely the time when self-interest and narrow advantage should be put aside. In the British constitutional settlement, Parliament is supposedly sovereign. A majority of MPs do not favour quitting the EU and in theory they could reject the referendum result, which is only “advisory”.
They would be within their constitutional rights to do so, but would have defied the “will of the people”. If they bow to the result, that is the more likely outcome, they would have subordinated Parliament to a populist and volatile mechanism. Who knows where it ends? Added to this, difficult negotiations would have to start to reorder the UK’s relations with the EU; highly likely to be an arduous and complex process. And while the negotiations were continuing, the Scottish National Party which dominates Scotland — which is likely to vote strongly to remain in the EU — would most probably call another independence referendum. This time the chances are that they would win it.
The prognosis in the event of a victory for Stronger In is better, but not much. Even if the vote is to stay in, the result is likely to be close. Despite his victory, Mr Cameron would face a deeply divided Conservative Party, seething with animosity and vengefulness. The feelings of distrust and disdain that the quitters have for Mr Cameron have been compounded by the referendum campaign. The quitters have vowed to continue their fight, notwithstanding their lack of popular legitimacy. A leadership challenge would also be likely.
The Labour Party is in only marginally better shape. Its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is not respected by the majority of Labour MPs, who are moderate. Many of the party’s traditional working class supporters, particularly in the north, voted for UKIP in the general election last year and could well vote to quit the EU later this week. Post-referendum, the-refore, the country would be riven. In many parts there would be anger and resentment, particularly given the divisiveness and mendacity of the quitters’ campaign. This mood would be ripe for exploitation by UKIP, a party which has shown itself adept at stealing votes from both left as well as right. Its opponents would be a shattered Conservative Party and a weakened Labour Party. Turbulent times lie ahead....