At the end of the first full week of the Brexit referendum campaign, things are not going well for the government-supported “Remain” camp led by David Cameron. That is not so much because the “Leave” campaign is ahead in the polls — it is in some polls, but that means little 18 weeks before the referendum — as because the basic calculations underpinning “Remain” are crumbling fast.
Essentially there is one large theme being pushed by “Remain.” It is popularly known as “Project Fear.” As its names implies, it is designed to make voters worry about Britain’s future if it leaves the European Union. It was tested in the Scottish referendum campaign when the Scottish voters were told: “Don’t risk it. Scotland can’t survive outside the United Kingdom. It’s too small, too reliant on subsidies from the English taxpayer, and too dependent for its own revenue on the high but unstable price of oil.” The strategists who crafted “Project Fear” think it succeeded then and will succeed in 18 weeks.
What actually happened is more complicated than that. As the referendum campaign wore on, Scots became disgusted with the crude defeatist and materialist nature of this appeal. Some thought “we’re better than that; we could cope.” The polls tightened almost to a dead heat. That alarmed other Scots, who thought “we’re better than that; we’re not in the U.K. just for English money.” They rediscovered a strong traditional U.K. patriotism and rallied to the Union. Opinion swung back. In the end, Scotland rejected independence by ten points.
Now, examine the various ways in which Brexit is more difficult political terrain for Project Fear than was the Scottish referendum:
(1) Britain is more than ten times as large as Scotland. Indeed, it is the fifth largest economy in the world. If it can’t survive (and indeed prosper) outside a European Zollverein, then neither can about 180 other nations in the world. In reality Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, and India are all smaller economies than the U.K. and all significant members of the G20. On that argument Project Fear doesn’t pass the smell test — or any more rigorous test either.
(2) Scottish nationalism had a serious rival in U.K. patriotism. That fact was decisive in the Scottish debate. But in the debate on Brexit there is no rival to U.K. patriotism. (Well, to be more precise, there is a small rival: many members of the U.K. political, bureaucratic, and media elites are secret Euro-nationalists, but they are few in number and theirs is the love that dare not speak its name.) Without a rival patriotism, Project Fear has to rely entirely on defeatism. But as we have seen, that can’t cut the mustard.
Project Fear has switched its emphasis from the economy to national security. Cameron now argues that if Britain leaves the EU, it will be stranded defenseless in a dangerous world without military or intelligence links.
(3) Project Fear has therefore switched its emphasis from the economy to national security. Cameron now argues that if Britain leaves the EU, it will be stranded defenseless in a dangerous world without military or intelligence links. How likely is that? Britain is the second most important member of the main European defense institution – namely, NATO. The EU is hardly a defense institution at all. Its defense identity is an absurd fantasy, which has to rely on the U.S. military to transport its tiny forces to any conflict not over a next-door frontier. That makes it, quite literally, a free rider. Both the U.S. and the U.K. governments long obstructed this EU dream on the grounds that it diverted scarce defense spending from serious NATO purposes to trivial EU ones — until Tony Blair, anxious to atone for Iraq and to prove his “good European” qualities, persuaded George W. Bush to withdraw American objections to it. So Britain’s departure from the EU would prevent a continual diversion of scarce U.K. defense expenditures from an EU folly in order to build up our real defenses in NATO. That is exactly opposite of what the Scottish National Party proposed for an independent Scotland: weakening NATO by expelling the U.K.-NATO nuclear-submarine base from Holy Loch. (As for intelligence links, Britain is one of the five members of the single most important intelligence organization in the world: the “Five Eyes” electronic eavesdropping cooperation of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. No continental European state is a member, though several, including France and Germany, would like to join. Britain is a co-founding member with the U.S. and provides much of the electronic hardware. So its position is secure.) Again, Cameron and the Remain camp are on the wrong side of the national-security argument that they themselves chose as their next-best case for Project Fear when its economic case collapsed.
(4) Maybe, though, they didn’t have much choice. With the euro wreaking recession and unemployment on Mediterranean Europe and exacting vast taxpayer subsidies from Northern Europe, the argument from economic integration had little popular appeal. Similarly, with millions walking into Europe at Angela Merkel’s invitation and likely after a few years to become EU citizens with the right to live in Britain, Remain and Cameron had to distract voters from what was happening across the Channel rather than being able to point to the EU’s manifold successes. Compare and contrast again: Project Fear in Scotland was rooted in the argument that Scotland would fare disastrously outside the U.K. If that argument had been made in 2008 just after the crash, it wouldn’t have persuaded anyone. But it was made in 2014 at the very time when the U.K. economy was rebounding and providing more jobs for Scots. So it seemed common sense. Today, however, Project Fear has to distract the voters from what is happening now inside Europe. That’s not easy. And as things seem to be going, it won’t get any easier before June 23. That leaves Cameron and Remain with only one other argument, namely:
(5) Leaving Europe would be “a leap in the dark.” Well, all decisions about the future (which is unknowable) are leaps in the dark. And when the darkness has finally been dispelled, you may find yourself on broad sunlit uplands or sinking into the unmentionable. So remaining in the EU is quite as much a leap in the dark as departing via Brexit into sovereign independence. Just at the moment (see point 4), the future of Europe looks less favorable than the future of the U.K. on its own. That may change. In any event, however, if you are facing an unknowable future, then you should retain your freedom of action to deal with whatever unknown future awaits you. Freedom of action for nations is called sovereignty; the EU rests on the opposite principle, solidarity, that when some new catastrophe bursts upon the world, the best way to handle it is to convene 28 busy politicians around a table and ask them to determine the solution by a complicated process called “qualified majority voting.” As the present crises confirm, though, this method is often unable even to determine the problem.
Lies are the currency of politics. But like all worthless currencies, they gradually lose credibility as they are passed around.
Project Fear worked on the Scots — to the limited extent that it did — because the difficulties facing an independent Scotland really were serious ones threatening the nation’s security and prosperity. That’s not true for Brexit. Second, describing Scottish independence as a “leap in the dark” had some force when the voters were living in a country created more than three hundred years ago, in 1707, by the Act of Union of Scotland with England. No one now living can personally recall Scotland as an independent country. The same fear-mongering has much less credibility in the case of British membership of the European Union created in 1972 by the European Communities Act. More than half the voters now living were alive then. (Indeed, I reported the debate leading to the vote for the Irish Radio and Television Service.) They can recall living in a self-governing British democracy. That life bore no relationship to the horrors described by Remain. It was as good and decent a life as the world had to offer.
The result is that Project Fear can win against Brexit only through a campaign of lies. Now, lies are the currency of politics (the drachma? the lire?). But like all worthless currencies, they gradually lose credibility as they are passed around. Exchange them soon or not at all. A good election-winning lie should not be minted until four or five days before the voting. Project Fear is printing lies that can’t be exchanged for votes for another 18 weeks. Not even central bankers can print that fast.