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Hugo Rifkind

Can the Great British public be made to care passionately about the EU referendum?

Out or In, both sides of the campaign are going to have their work cut out

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

It’s early days, I know, but the Outers have convinced me. Britain will not collapse into chaos and penury if we leave the European Union. The Inners, meanwhile, have convinced me, too: there is no great, looming danger if we stay. Thus I have a question. What are we going to spend the next 18 months talking about?

I don’t see it. I may be wrong, and often am. Here and now, though, I do not see the looming spark which will ignite the dry tinder of the Great British public into giving a toss. Which I think is something that people who are passionate about this argument, on either side, do not quite see. They think it will be fiery. Apocalyptic. Four Horsemen, Eurogog and Euromagog, and a beast crawling out of the sea with a € or a £ on its forehead, depending. They see the fight coming for which they have been preparing almost for ever, and they think everybody else will care.

To be more terrestrial, they think it will be like it was with Scotland. Remember that? Those few curious weeks last year when even some perfectly sane people were waking up at 4 a.m., checking opinion polls and lying awake? The turnout was 85 per cent, and no wonder. This was existential. In Scotland and the rest of the UK alike, it was about who we were to be. And what they think, the two sides (or perhaps more — it is hard to keep track) of the pending EU referendum, is that what looms will be similar.

It won’t be. We are not that sort of European. Some of us are, obviously, and you’ll perhaps find a handful of Europhile jet-setting city types whose pockets jingle with euros and Swiss francs, and who cannot quite get their heads around the fact that most people’s pockets don’t. Such an identity, even so, does not map neatly on to EU membership, as evidenced by Lord Lawson cheerleading the Conservatives for Britain group on the BBC’s Today programme the other week from his house in France. Whether we stay or go, we are who we are.


What, then, to fire us up? Both sides will try fear, in the manner of Better Together’s Project Fear, but both sides will struggle. It was easy for Better Together, after all, because there was quite a lot to be afraid of. In will claim that business will flee, but Out will counter that the UK will remain the fifth largest economy in the world, so there will probably still be the odd shop. Out will raise the spectre of mass, uncontrolled immigration from our EU brethren, but In will remind them that we opted out of open borders, and that our coastline, come what may, will continue to sport a perfectly serviceable and quite deep sea. Immigration, at any rate, is not truly an EU-centric argument. Whisper it, but when people get cross about it, it’s not really the Poles they mind.

There will not be passion in this debate, except from a minority who are passionate already. The public will see people shouting at each other about sovereignty and diplomatic horizons and wonder what the hell it has to do with them. This has always been the EU’s problem, but it will be a problem for its foes, too. Those bananas never did get any less bendy. At some point, probably, parts of Out will do their utmost to accuse In of living in a self-serving bubble. Alas, ‘The Westminster village is determined to prevent power from returning to Westminster!’ may prove a tricky concept to sell.

The last refuge of a scoundrel running a referendum campaign is patriotism. Neither side will find that easy. You will struggle to find many people living in Britain who grew up dreaming of the Brussels they read about in Smash Hits. Similarly, British people do not resent the presence of an excess of Europeans and Europeanishness on TV, on shows like Question Time. Strasbourg does not claim Andy Murray, even when he wins. There is no cultural hinterland here. Whatever happens, ultimately, there’s no particular reason for the Queen to give a shit.

So it will not be like the Scotland referendum. In fact, it may be more like the AV referendum. Distant, technical and dull. And yes, I’m sure I will get sucked in and care enormously, because that is my way. Before that happens, though, consider this column my marker. A sign that, once, perspective was mine. We stand poised on the cusp of an almighty fight. And throughout it, the British people will shrug and be a little bemused, and perhaps care less than many of us will feel they ought. What’s more, they might be right.

A big day approaches

A big day is coming. You will need to be precisely on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennials to care, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t big. True Millennials will be too occupied wearing deliberately awful clothes and riding fixed-gear bikes back to their parental homes, where they still live, to notice. True Generation X won’t be bothered. Baby-boomers are way out of it, and will be busy having heart attacks on the way to their saxophone lessons. Those of us bang on point, though, will stop and stare in awe. Next Monday. 21 October 2015. Back To The Future Day.

I will leave it to others to spell out the lack of flying cars, hoverboards, double ties and toilet fax machines. Consider this only a warning. This is the day Marty McFly flew to in his Delorean. And if you don’t know what that means, prepare to be surrounded by people who do. Enough of your fogeyish Orwell. We own the zeitgeist now.

eu1The Spectator is hosting an evening discussion ‘Is the EU bad for business?’ at 7pm on Tuesday 20 October at The Royal College of Surgeons, WC2. Speakers include: Dominic Cummings, director of the ‘No’ campaign and Will Straw, executive director of the ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign and is chaired by Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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