It would seem the United Kingdom is standing on the edge of a cliff. As Britons prepare for June 23, to give their verdict on whether to leave or remain in the European Union, politicians are making misleading claims and political discourse is getting increasingly bitter. The nation stands divided, and its people are confused. Never before has the United Kingdom looked so disunited.
Almost two years ago, it backed off from the brink when the Scottish people decided not to leave the United Kingdom. The debate then was heated and passions were high, but bitterness was rare — and the boundaries of civil discourse were rarely breached.
It’s different this time. Both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps have made exaggerated claims in tones and terms that were unheard of until now. The respected Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has blamed the leave camp “for the inflammatory language, for the finger-jabbing, the dogwhistling and the overt racism”.
The campaign had its first casualty last Thursday when Thomas Mair, 52, shot and stabbed Labour MP Jo Cox in Birstall, West Yorkshire. He was shouting “Britain first” during the attack. Though the attacker had a history of depression, he had also been in the past active in South African and American neo-Nazi groups.
The country is shocked. Cox, a former human rights activist and one of the most popular MPs in the House of Commons, was a rising star of the opposition Labour Party. The referendum campaign was suspended for two days as a mark of respect to her.
Earlier, Nigel Farage, leader of the xenophobic UK Independent Party (UKIP) put out a controversial poster that showed a mass influx of Syrian refugees and claimed that the EU is at “breaking point”. Farage also alleged that “within a few years, all of these people will have EU passports… We are much less safe as part of this European Union”.
The poster triggered widespread criticism. Many Twitter users uploaded a similar image of migrants that was used in Nazi propaganda during the 1930s. Former Home Secretary Yvette Cooper attacked Farage for “exploiting the misery of the Syrian refugee crisis in the most dishonest and immoral way”. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described the poster as “disgusting”. And Dave Prentis, the leader of the biggest trade union, Unison, reported the poster to the police, describing it as a “blatant attempt to incite racial hatred”.
“This is scaremongering in its most extreme and vile form,” Prentis said.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron’s position has been badly shaken by the campaign. At least of six of his cabinet ministers and about 60 Conservative MPs are opposing him and backing the Leave campaign, which is led by Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
The opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, initially showed little enthusiasm for the Remain campaign. Though he did eventually come out in support, he missed an opportunity to stamp his personality on a vital issue.
Dr William Crawley of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, believes that calling a referendum was a mistake. “It’s a Gaullist idea and a populist instrument. For us, it’s a new political instrument at a very high cost. It has deeply divided the government. We have no government, certainly the cabinet government, in this country for the last few weeks.”
The Leave camp has raised the highly sensitive issue of immigration, arguing that Cameron has failed to control EU migrants. In a video speech, Gove argued that Turkey and four other countries could join the EU by 2020. Consequently, an extra 5.2 million people might be moving to the UK — a population the size of Scotland, or four cities the size of Birmingham.
Seema Malhotra, an MP of Indian origin and a prominent Gove opponent, called it “scaremongering.” “No one should vote based on fear,” she said.
But there is fear all around Britain today. An elderly white woman who declined to give her name complained, “There are no jobs for our kids because these Polish guys take up all the jobs.” Even Indian businessmen, many of whom often benefit by employing illegal immigrants from the subcontinent, say there is no space here anymore. Some Indian and Pakistani community leaders seem to believe that if immigration from the EU stops, it might be easier for them to invite their own friends and relatives to the UK from the subcontinent.
Facts do not support the claim that a quarter million people migrate to Britain from the EU annually. In 2015, net migration from the EU was estimated to be 184,000 compared to 174,000 in the previous year.
Former London Mayor Johnson has been travelling around the country in his battle bus with a prominently displayed message: “We send the EU £ 350 million a week — let’s fund our NHS instead.” The National Health Service is Britain’s publicly funded free healthcare service that has been facing stress.
According to Johnson, this money can help build a new hospital every week. But critics have pointed out that Johnson has inflated this figure by £102 million, the rebate that the UK got from the EU last year.
And yet, the figure has stuck in the public imagination, and many people seem to be convinced that the perennial shortages of Britain’s health service would be over once it stopped sending this money to the EU.
Overblown and hyperinflated, these claims have sensationalised the debate. And has not been easy for the Remain camp to explain complex issues like the advantages of
According to the latest polls, the country remains badly divided — 49% for Leave, 43% for Remain, and 8% Don’t Know. If the Leave camp succeeds, it could trigger shock waves not only for the UK, but also for the EU and the global economy.
It might be the beginning of the end of the world’s largest common market. Approximately 45% of the UK’s trade is with the EU. Neighbouring Ireland is horrified. In France, the right-wing leader Marine Le Pen has begun to talk about a “Frexit”. There are politicians in Germany, Netherlands and Denmark too who dream of quitting the EU.
In an important intervention, the head of IMF, Christine Lagarde, described the Leave camp’s desire as “a serious challenge for the European project”. In its annual report, the IMF warned that if the UK decides to leave the EU, living standards would fall, inflation would rise, and could wipe out up to 5.5% off the GDP. The British economy might be plunging into recession by 2017.
Yash Batra, who runs a medium-sized confectionary factory in Southall, said, “I am not an economist. But I know one thing. For a businessman who wants to grow, it’s foolish to leave your biggest market.”
A Leave vote will also destabilise the domestic political scene. Dr Crawley says, “David Cameron took a gamble, a reckless gamble. The Scottish referendum was very close, and this might be very close too. If he loses on the 24th June, I do not see how he can remain prime minister by the evening.”
Cameron’s rival Boris Johnson might pose a leadership challenge. And if the Conservative split remains unhealed, Britain might see a new general election.