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Hugo Rifkind

Like every referendum ever, this EU vote will solve nothing

After Scotland, does anyone really expect this will answer the Europe question for once and for all?

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

I suppose, if you could look deep into the mind of somebody who was passionately keen that Britain should leave the European Union then, in among things like old episodes of Dad’s Army and unassailable convictions that Cornwall produces some perfectly good vintages, and so on, you might also spot a vision of the future.

In this vision, our referendum will have been and gone and Britain will have seen the light and left the EU. Everybody will have been convinced. Even Nick Clegg. The question will have been settled for a generation at least, and there will be no need to talk about it anymore and we’ll be able to get on with doing all the things that those blasted Europeans have been preventing us from doing for the past four decades. Whatever they were.

Likewise, if you peered into the mind of a passionate British advocate of the EU, and you brought along a translator, because they’re obviously dirty polyglots to a man, then you might also find a vision of the future. In this one, Britain will have resoundingly voted to stay in, and Nigel Farage will be feeling so cravenly silly about everything that he’ll have crawled off to open a tiny pub in the furthest reaches of Kent, where he’ll keep flouting the smoking ban in the hope that somebody will arrest him, but out of cruelty no one ever will. Here and there, residual pockets of Eurosceptics might linger on, but they’ll be cared for in their own communities, possibly with the help of grants from Brussels. And likewise, the matter will be settled and nobody will want to talk about it all ever again.

Just like, in other words, almost no referendum ever. As we surely ought to have learnt from Scotland, what we are not about to do is resolve anything. Nothing will end. Nobody will calm down. People with entrenched views will not climb out of their trenches. Afterwards, everything will be exactly the same.

I assume, of course, that we’re going to stay in. I assume that because the only people I can find anywhere who think differently are Scottish Nationalists gamely hunting for a reason to claim nationalism is only what southerners do, the English bastards. Even most of the Outies I know think we’re going to stay in, and are mighty glum about it. Probably, as things unfold, we’ll have lots of polls saying we’re staying in, then a week of rogue polls that say we’re going out, then a week of panic from people who really want us to stay in, and then we’ll stay in.

And the thing we will be staying in, of course, will be pretty much exactly the same as the thing we’re in already. I keep reading about David Cameron ‘talking tough in Europe’ and being ‘confident of getting Britain a better deal’ and I cannot for the life of me figure out what he wants. Does anybody know? Nobody will budge on freedom of movement, nor could our economy stand it if they did. There will be some constitutional waffle in which Brussels promises not to make us do some stuff that the French wouldn’t stand for anyway, and some minor tinkering with benefits which will have the total wholesale end result of making about two-and-a-half Romanian carpenters in Wigan almost think about moving to Hamburg for a bit. There exists a great and sweeping conspiracy in British politics and media to pretend that all of this is not total balls. But it is.

Cameron has an eye now on the post-referendum. You can tell. His announcement last week that only British citizens would get a vote — and EU citizens resident here would not — felt iffy, morally speaking, but was best understood as a helpless admission that this whole referendum is already a massive concession to Britain’s noisy Outie minority, happening deep in Outie territory and under Outie rules, because it’s only the Outies who want it. And yet, the crucial thing about Outies is that they aren’t going to stop wanting it, not even once they’ve had it. This argument is not about to be settled. It is just about to get louder.

High fidelity

Keep an eye on the government’s ban on legal highs. The Conservative manifesto pledged to outlaw all the horrible chemicals kids smoke and snort for fun these days, on account of them being easier to get hold of than the straightforward, honest illegal narcotics we had when I were a lad.

Certainly they’re worth banning, but I’m on tenterhooks to see how they’ll go about it. Chemical compositions are easily tweaked, meaning there’s no point in specifically banning a substance, because another not-quite-identical one springs up days later. Banning substances intended for human consumption won’t work, either, because these things all claim on the packaging that they aren’t. One of these days, a government will click that every effort ever devised to stop people putting horrible things into their bodies has only led to them putting even more horrible things into their bodies. Although I don’t think it will be this one.


Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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