There is a statiscal possibility that there are some people in the UK who may have accidentally locked themselves in an old chest freezer on their local land-fill site, or who may have been stranded on a barren rock in the Northern Atlantic Ocean 150 miles west of the Shetland Islands following a harrowing stag party, who are still blissfully unaware of the looming national referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union on June 23rd which has been the subject of the most acrimonious, bitter, divisive political campaigning that Britain has witnessed since 1973, when we voted to join the EU.
The referendum was given the go-ahead by a beleagured David Cameron following the 2015 General Election to honour a desperate electoral bribe offered before the election to stop the Conservative vote haemorraging further as thousands of traditional Conservative voters jumped ship in 2014-2015 to join the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) which was created in 1991 with the sole intention of taking Britain out of the EU.
Led since 1993 by charismatic bar-fly Nigel Farage who campaigned exhaustively on an often borderline racist fearmongering anti-immigration platform, UKIP’s membership had sky-rocketed since 2013, and in the two Local Government Elections prior to the 2015 General Election an energised UKIP won a shockingly high number of local council victories. Suddenly there were 497 UKIP councillors in office up and down the country – predominantly at the expense of ousted incumbent Conservative councillors. Farage’s aggressively Euro-sceptic party was already the dominant British contingent in the European Parliament, providing 11 out of a total 24 British MEP’s.
At Conservative Party Headquarters massive existential panic ensued, and David Cameron had a massive UKIP problem to deal with. His position as leader of the Conservative Party was on the line. Something had to be done to save his skin.
Farage seemed to be unassailable. His meticulously crafted plain-speaking “Man of the people” persona was expertly aimed at his target demographic – disaffected, powerless working and middle-class voters from across the political spectrum who had seen their wages and standards of living drop and drop since the Tories had taken power in 2010 and imposed their punitive “Austerity” ideology on a nation already weakened by the financial crash of 2008, and who were readily persuaded by the charismatic Farage that the source of all their troubles was (and always had been, and always would be) an interfering, unaccountable, bloated European Union dictated to by bloody Germans, and the free-flow of hordes of swarthy EU citizens allowed to enter Britain to work and live which had, Farage preached, seen unskilled economic migrants “pouring in” from Europe’s poorest countries, flooding our labour market, taking our jobs and driving down wages because they were willing to work for less money in this Land of Milk and Honey than any self-respecting British worker would.
Relentlessly tapping in to the darkest reaches of the insular British psyche, Farage’s lurid Enoch Powellian speeches threatened that, for example, the first day that newcomer Romania became an EU member there would quite literally be a tsunami of 17 million eligible, desperate, devious Roma gypsies heading to Britain to live off state benefits and be immediately given free council housing. Farage’s fear-laden racist rhetoric appealed massively to those on the far-right and, increasingly, the Tory base. UKIP was already littered with former British National Party and National Front members, and Farage knew that if he could clean up UKIP’s tarnished image enough he could convince disaffected Euro-sceptic Conservative voters to the UKIP cause.
Following the attention-grabbing defection of two Conservative MPs to UKIP which triggered Bye-elections and produced UKIP victories for Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – on the promise by Nigel Farage that if the public voted for UKIP in the General Election he would demand an EU referendum – Farage’s star was in the ascendant.
Europhile David Cameron and his strategists had no choice but to match Farage’s referendum promise to his own restive, dwindling Conservative Party membership. Cameron promised in his election manifesto that if he won the election Britain would have its referendum, and by doing so was successful in beating off the UKIP threat in the 2015 General Election. Mark Reckless lost in Rochester and Strood, leaving UKIP with the solitary Douglas Carswell in Clacton. Even though UKIP polled a massive 13% of the total votes cast nationally, sensationally, party leader Nigel Farage failed to win his contested seat in South Thanet and the Conservatives squeezed home to victory – but with a reduced majority.
David Cameron then embarked on a high profile PR campaign to try and renegotiate various elements of Britains obligations as EU members to further placate his increasingly stroppy Euro-sceptic MPs and the party’s influential financial backers. He made several visits to Brussels where he pitched his list of hissy-fit reform demands, trying to win over the powerful German Chancellor Angela Merckel and French President Francois Hollande with the repeated threat that Britain would leave if he didn’t get these concessions. Cameron failed miserably. There were key issues absolutely central to the core philosophy of the European Union which were not up for negotiation, like the free movement of labour across internal EU borders, adherence to the Human Rights Act, acceptance of rulings from the European Court of Human Rights and the level of Britain’s annual contribution to EU coffers.
Like the pathological PR man that he is, David Cameron returned home claiming that he had won some important concessions on European Reform, but the truth was that though he had managed to score some minor victories, he had succeeded in alienating the political allies that mattered in Europe, and had been told in no uncertain terms that he had squandered all his political capital in Brussels and everyone was tired of his whingeing. Cameron was losing influence rapidly and becoming side-lined in Europe, and his future as Conservative leader was whispered to be on shaky ground.
Back in London the 43 year long festering tribal divisions within the Conservative Party between pro and vehemently anti-European Union MPs opened up like fault lines across colliding tectonic plates, and so a date for the referendum was announced and a Referendum Bill passed in Parliament. There was to be state funding for both official “In” and “Out” campaigns and, rather than demand that his Cabinet Ministers observe collective responsibility to the Government’s official pro-EU membership position which would force Cameron to sack dissenting Ministers, or see them resign in a flurry of damaging press attention, Cameron had no option but to suspend collective responsibility and give his Ministers permission to campaign publicly for the “No” (or “Brexit” – British Exit) position if they wished.
By now it was estimated that 50% of his MPs wanted Brexit. The fight was on.
After a power struggle between three rival Brexit campaign groups to become the official, richly-funded “Out” campaign, the matter was finally settled and the keys to the petty cash tin were handed to “Vote Leave”, on whose campaign committee sits (amongst others) Michael Gove MP, Iain Duncan Smith MP, Chris Grayling MP, Liam Fox MP, Priti Patel MP, Daniel Hannan MP and Mayor of London Boris Johnson MP – a committee comprised (strangely enough) largely of power-hungry Conservative MPs who are all jockeying themselves into position to get themselves nominated in the inevitable party leadership challenge and blood-letting if the internally-unpopular Cameron’s “In” campaign fails – none more so than dilettante faux-buffoon Boris Johnson, whose trophy-hunting plans for getting Cameron’s crown are widely known.
Parallel (but now only self-funded) campaigns are being run by the obscure “Get Britain Out” group and Nigel Farage’s UKIP-centric “Grassroots Out (GO)” campaign, fronted by Farage, Tory MP Peter Bone and (to the confusion and disbelief of just about everyone) controversial former Respect Party MP George Galloway.
In no time at all the various In and Out campaigns started bombarding the nation with their passionately held beliefs, backed up by a hurricane of highly selective statistics, and dire predictions for the future of Britain if you didn’t vote for them.
Soon after the official campaigns were launched, US President Barak Obama flew to London to lend his support for David Cameron’s ‘Remain’ campaign, drawing howls of complaints of foul play and derision from the ‘Leave’ camp who, rather than listen to Obama’s official position that whilst it is a matter for the British public to decide, Washington believes that leaving the EU would be a strategic geo-political mistake which would weaken Britain’s standing in the world and might destabilise the EU, Boris Johnson penned a shocking response in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun Newspaper in which he accused the President of hypocrisy and then went on to imply that the “part-Kenyan President” harboured “an ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
The long weeks that followed have seen a bewildering succession of outright lies, unfounded exaggeration and the use of statistics so chronically manipulated to serve each campaign’s needs that the general public have been left completely bewildered and unable to discover (let alone understand) the crucial facts behind what has become a purely emotion-driven campaign as each side has forgone the professionalism expected of them and has chosen instead to rely on dog-whistle politics and highly emotive, divisive statements – none more so than on the issue of immigration, which has massively legitimised the bigoted, hysterical claims from the far-right and UKIP with their entrenched, insular “Little Englander” claims that the United Kingdom will implode any second beneath the sheer weight of millions of theoretical refugees and bloody immigrants if we don’t pull up the drawbridge immediately and close our borders to Johnny Foreigner.
The tragedy is that as June 23rd approaches and Britain is about to make the most important decision it has made in over four decades of mutual European prosperity and peace, we may be about to throw it all away on the basis of small-minded prejudice and fear of the Other…