international analysis and commentary

A question of British identity

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Britain is an odd kingdom, small and overcast and improbably powerful. When European countries conquered the world, the British amassed an empire and daubed the world pinkish-red, the traditional color of its colonies on maps (and, some would say, the color of blood). Imperial grandeur is long past, of course. The colonies were granted freedom or took it, and British ambitions shriveled. Yet the United Kingdom still views itself as a nation apart, geographically European but culturally something else. The June 23 referendum will determine just how wide the British want that gulf to be.

For Prime Minister David Cameron – gambling with both his job and legacy as leader of the “In” camp – the people’s decision should be about the economy. Leaving the bloc, the Prime Minister says, will threaten millions of jobs and bring about a decade of uncertainty. It is, in one of his slogans, “a leap in the dark”. Major economic institutions, from the Bank of England to the International Monetary Fund, have warned against Brexit. Cameron’s international allies underscore his position, including President Barack Obama, who warned that negotiating a new trade deal with the US would not be a swift proposition.

A map of “Britannia”

For Cameron’s rivals, led by the charismatic ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, the decision is firstly about immigration. Figures show a surge in net migration in the last years: 330,000, including 184,000 from within the EU, is the level reached in 2015, in spite of Cameron’s promise to dumpen the number under 100,000.

The “Out” campaign maintains that only by leaving the bloc can the country control its borders. Migrants, they say, take the jobs of UK citizens, threaten public safety, and weigh on social services, especially the treasured but overstretched National Health System. The anti-immigrant argument is less effective in London, a multiethnic capital in which 35% of the population was born abroad. But it resonates in areas such as the Midlands or the north of England, where some watch anxiously as ethnic communities change without the immense wealth gained in the capital in recent decades.

The fault lines of this vote do not follow a traditional left-right divide. Cameron’s Conservatives are bitterly split regarding Europe, and the Prime Minister faces the daunting task of reconciling his party after the vote, assuming he doesn’t lose power. Besides Johnson, the main Brexiteers are top Tories, notably Justice Secretary Michael Gove and Employment Minister Priti Patel, the daughter of Ugandan-South Asian immigrants, who is a rising star in the party. As for the opposition, Labour’s position is that Britain should stay in, but half of its voters don’t know it, studies suggest. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a lifelong eurosceptic whose advocacy for “In” has been limp. To some on the Left, this is a vote about Tory infighting; others, citing concerns over immigration, want to leave. With a projected majority of Tories favoring exit, a low turnout from Labour would be disastrous for the “In” vote.

The biggest divide is between old and young. Older voters tend to prefer Brexit and are highly motivated to vote; the young favor Remain but are less likely to cast ballots. Another chasm is between highly-educated people (“In”) and blue-collars voters (“Out”), as well as between cosmopolitan cities (“In”) and areas of declining industry (“Out”).

Undecided voters are estimated to number between 10% and 20% of the total. Yet a pervasive but scaremongering campaign has left many confused. Andrew Tyre, Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, which includes politicians on both sides of the debate, has denounced “misleading and at times bogus claims” in the debate. “The public is thoroughly fed up with them,” he declared. But they haven’t stopped. The most glaring distortions have come from the Leave camp, which says Britain sends £350 million a week to Brussels, a claim so central to their message it is written on the side of a campaign bus that is traveling up and down the country. But the figure is inaccurate, according to independent bodies such as the UK Statistics Authority, because it ignores the British rebate and payments received by the UK, such as EU contributions to support farmers.

Swaying the matter further is a fervent drive for “Out” votes from the right-wing press, whose front pages have warned nonstop about the upcoming invasion of millions of Turks, about criminals roaming the Continent unchecked, and other supposed evils of EU membership. Cameron himself has faced criticism for hyperbole, accused of depicting Brexit as tantamount to the apocalypse. But his greatest flaw in this campaign has been timidity, refraining from attacking party rivals, though they are pushing to thwart and perhaps depose him.

Underlying it all is the question of British identity, and its relationship to Europe: an inseparable sibling, a polite cousin, or a mere neighbor? Echoes of the Second World War play a part: the conflict that, by destruction and enduring shame, humbled the Continent also marked Britain’s “finest hour”, as per a famed Churchill speech, deprivation and stoicism rising into national myth. When Germany and France pushed toward integration after the horrors of the war, Britain watched from the sidelines until grudgingly allying itself in the 1970s. Since then, it has been a reluctant, ambivalent ally: it wants access to a market of 500 million people but is suspicious of entanglements and loss of sovereignty, especially regarding security, foreign policy and borders. Many Britons view the EU as a faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy ruling their lives from afar.

The Brexiteers whip up this hostility, promising to regain control over Britain’s destiny, and restore an earlier version of the nation, proud and independent, even nostalgic of imperial glories. By contrast, the Remain campaign is promising a more sedate future: Britain will retain diplomatic clout and maintain its economy inside the bloc.

By all accounts, the vote will be close and turnout is crucial, the higher the better for “In”. Opinion polls are only clouding the issue, presenting wild variation in results, though they do point to a late surge of the Brexit camp. Bookmakers, often a reliable barometer of the country’s mood, are still betting on Remain, although they, too, have shown a growing likelihood of “Out”.

The anti-establishment and populist sentiment sweeping Europe might help push the Brexit camp over the line. “I think collectively people are beginning to put two fingers up to the political class,” said Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader who first stirred up the matter. Still, the British tend to be pragmatic and risk averse when it comes to politics. In that case, the very British thing to do could be the very European choice.