Britain's In-Out Referendum: What's Really Going On?

Emma Vines

Emma Vines is a Lecturer in politics at Australian Catholic University, Canberra

In 2017 Britain will vote on its continued membership of the European Union. While there are a number of reasons behind the vote, including, of course, Conservative backbench rebellion and increasing Euroscepticism, the story is in fact far more complex and goes well-beyond the issue of European integration. It in fact, also encompasses two powerful, and related, contemporary forces – populism and anti-establishment sentiment.

When we talk of populism in Europe, we normally think of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Greece’s Golden Dawn or Spain’s Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos. Britain barely gets a look in. And yet, if we look for populism outside of general elections, turning instead to the question of European integration, we begin to see that populism in Britain in fact has a long history, dating back to the country’s entry into the EEC. Opposition to European integration has seen politicians from both the right and left of politics cast Europe as the “other” – a threat to the British way of life, and a distant elite incapable of representing the ‘ordinary Brit’. Yet, while the result has been a push for referendums on matters of European integration, the 2017 in-out referendum differs from these previous referendum promises.

In 1975, when Harold Wilson agreed to a referendum on membership to the EEC, the vote was intended as a sop to the Eurosceptic faction of his Party. The strategy worked, with the Government’s decision to back Britain’s continued membership receiving resounding (if half-hearted) approval in the popular vote. Further, Labour trouble-makers who had headed the ‘No’ campaign, in particular, Tony Benn, found their position and power in the Party undermined. Wilson had not only strengthen his own position, he had weakened potential challengers. All in all, the referendum was a success and ever since, referendum promises on European integration have been the fall-back strategy for parties in trouble. When Euroscepticism raises its ugly head and threatens party unity, depoliticising the issue by passing the buck to the British public has proved a reliable method of party management.

Yet, while referendums may have started out as a relatively safe means of protecting party unity, it seems the 2017 referendum is a greater gamble. Euroscepticism is high and agreeing to the vote also meant an embarrassing back-track on the Conservative’s previous refusal to allow to an in-out referendum. The option was resisted at every turn.

Although a referendum was resisted, however, the problem of Europe had to be dealt with. One attempt at this was the EU Act (2011), passed by the Conservatives as a beleaguered Cameron tried to quieten backbench rebellion. The Act reasserted the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty – that any laws affecting Britain did so only when assented to by Westminster. Additionally, further integration was effectively blocked as any significant transfers of power to the EU are now subject to the verdict of “the people”. Not only was Cameron trying to reassure his backbench as to his Eurosceptic credentials, he was doing this in such a way as to appear “in-touch” with the needs and opinions of “the people”.

The Act, however, was not truly populist, in large part because of the significant safeguards written into it. Most notably, the ’significance test’ is subject to Parliament’s discretion. That means, the decision to hold a referendum remains dependent on Parliament’s determination that an issue is of sufficient importance to warrant a public vote. Popular participation in this respect remains at the whim of Parliament.

In 2017, however, the British public will be allowed to vote on Britain’s future in the EU through a referendum which holds few of these safeguards, and which has been promised in a very different political environment than Wilson found himself in. This referendum isn’t simply the result of a leader under pressure within his own party – although backbench rebellion played no small part in Cameron’s decision. Instead, there has been pressure from outside Parliament. The remarkable rise of UKIP prior to the 2015 General Election saw the Conservatives running scared, as an established party was faced with an increasingly popular, populist alternative.

UKIP, although at that stage without any Westminster seats, was reaching some of Britain’s most politically alienated and angry. Their anti-establishment rhetoric, far more than their Euroscepticism, found a very receptive audience and the major parties were suddenly confronted by the possibility of voters defecting to a minor party. This small, populist Eurosceptic party was thus able to place pressure on the Coalition; and, with the EU Act failing to comfort Conservative Eurosceptics, Cameron found himself painted into a corner.

The solution was the promise of an in-out referendum. The promise had the advantage of not only mollifying Eurosceptics in his own Party, but also of making Cameron look like he was “listening” to the people. UKIP no longer stood alone in understanding the public’s concerns about Europe. All this despite the fact that UKIP’s appeal to voters has far more to do with their immigration platform (albeit linked to European integration) and anti-establishment position than their desire to see Britain out of Europe. It seems it is populism and opposition to “politics and usual” that many voters are responding to; and yet, major parties continue seemingly oblivious to the message citizens are trying to send them.

The reality now is that Cameron is faced with a popular vote he may well struggle to control and which won’t even go to the heart of the problem. The two-party system is in trouble and if the major parties fail to engage with the anti-establishment aspect of this issue, they may find the vote does not go their way. While it seems almost unthinkable that voters will defy the wishes of both major parties (who will most likely advocate continued membership), Euroscepticism is high and it is possible that voters will simply respond with a two-finger salute to parties who seem to no longer understand or care about the needs of the “ordinary person”.

So we see that British politics is in a state of flux. Central to this is a challenge to the two-party system and the growth of populism. The SNP have seriously damaged Labour, and UKIP, although kept out of Westminster by the first-past-the-post electoral system, has proved a thorn in the side of the Conservatives. Minor parties have proved more capable of appearing in-touch with disaffected voters. One consequence of this is that both Labour and the Conservatives are desperate to reconnect with voters, or at least appear as though they care. For Cameron, one solution was a referendum on EU membership; and for Labour, a possible solution seems to have been to try a different type of leader.

There is no question that heightened Euroscepticism will dominate the 2017 referendum, but there’s far more to it than that. The fact that a vote is being held at all is evidence of a wider malaise effecting British politics. To view it otherwise is to miss the bigger picture.

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