London — The polls show voters split right down the middle on whether Britain will choose to leave the European Union. If the “Leave” side loses Thursday, it will be for two reasons: Voters are traditionally risk-averse and prone to stick with the status quo in the polling booth, and “Remain” campaigners were able to use “Project Fear” tactics to stoke fears of the unknown in voters and to convince them that it was socially unacceptable to support Brexit.
The two prongs of the Remain campaign were on display in Tuesday’s final great debate. Ruth Davidson, the pro-EU leader of Scottish Conservatives, asserted that voters, before voting to leave, should be “100 percent confident” of exactly what a post-Brexit future entailed. London mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labour-party community organizer, turned on his predecessor Boris Johnson and snarled, “Your campaign hasn’t been Project Fear — it’s been Project Hate as far as immigration is concerned.”
Daniel Hannan is a member of the European Parliament for Britain, a frequent NRO contributor, and a Brexit backer. He tells me that the real risk is in voting Remain. “Should we vote to leave, it will naturally be a gradual process, and new trading links will be formed — it’s clearly in the interest of both sides,” he told me after a debate at Cadogan Hall in tony Belgravia. “If Remain wins, you can bet that Brussels will accelerate European political integration and central control, and know there is little Britain can do to stop it.”
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There certainly have been some missteps by Leave campaigners. Michael Gove, the anti-EU minister of justice in the government of Conservative David Cameron, fell into the “Hitler” trap this week when he essentially compared pro-EU experts to Nazis. Speaking on a radio show, he said: “We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong, and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish.”
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Gove was on firmer ground earlier when he pointed out that most of today’s pro-EU experts had unsuccessfully urged Britain to adopt the euro, the currency that has led to disastrous debts and recessionary unemployment in much of Europe.
Nigel Farage, the head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, deserves credit for moving the anti-EU issue from a fringe topic to the cusp of electoral victory. But last week he issued a provocative and unnecessary poster that featured a photo of foreign migrants streaming in a horde toward the camera. Farage apologized for the “timing” of the poster — it was released hours before a pro-EU member of parliament was brutally killed — and the ammunition it gave the opposing side.
Lorna Mickelson, an environmentalist from Hackney, told me that the EU is preventing Britain from taking control of its own destiny: “We should be making decisions for ourselves.” Her concerns were echoed by Jim Mann, a Labour member of parliament, who warns that the Left “should be about pushing power downward, passing it to local levels” not sending more power to Brussels.
Indeed, if there is a philosophical center of the Brexit debate here, it is about sovereignty and the fact that membership in the EU means unlimited immigration from 27 other countries. And more and more of Britain’s laws are being made by Brussels. Steve Hilton, a top adviser to Prime Minister Cameron until 2012 and the godfather of one of his children, says that what astonished him most about how the British government really worked “was just how much of what we wanted to do couldn’t be done because of EU edicts and rules.”
Supporters of the EU such as the Scottish Conservative party leader Ruth Davidson admit that “it’s not perfect,” but they seem determined to see Britain subsumed into a Europe that’s dominated by faceless “Brussels sprout” bureaucrats. Carolyn Lucas of the Green party commented during Tuesday’s debate that the EU is “the world’s greatest peace project.”In the end, Britain’s voters face a clear choice. The nation voted two to one to join the European Economic Community in 1975, but that is when the issues were purely about expanding trade and cooperation. Now the EEC has morphed into the behemoth of the EU, with its talk of a European-wide tax-identification number and a European army.
Former London mayor Boris Johnson directly addressed those concerns in Tuesday’s debate when he ended the evening with this statement: “If we vote ‘leave’ and take back control, I believe that this Thursday can be our country’s Independence Day,” He received a standing ovation. By way of contrast, Prime Minister Cameron’s response today was weak: Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, he said: “We are not shackled to a corpse. You can see the European economies recovering.”
The Remain camp has certainly planted seeds of doubt about the risks of leaving the EU. They have won the battle for the heads of many voters. But the response to Johnson’s stirring call for independence shows that the arguments of the Leave side have captured millions of British hearts.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.