National Security & Defense

Will Britain Vote to Leave the European Union?

David Cameron at the European Union Summit in Brussels, March 20, 2015. (Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty)

As the referendum on Brexit (i.e., Britain’s departure from the European Union) gets closer, advocates of Britain remaining a member, such as prime minister David Cameron, are looking and sounding more and more like “Baghdad Bob” denying the arrival of the U.S. Army even as, over his shoulder, we see GIs pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue.

Over David Cameron’s shoulder, we can see the young migrant men storming Europe’s porous borders, the scenes of mass sexual assault in Cologne, the long lines of people in southern Europe made permanently jobless by the Euro, the toppling of moderate governments (left and right) weakened by the Eurozone’s “austerity” policy, the relentless rise of populist, nationalist, and Trotskyist parties across the continent, and the dithering and incompetence of the EU’s central institutions in the face of these massive problems.

Seemingly oblivious, Cameron tells us how the European Union guarantees Britain’s prosperity and security today, but that soon it will be even more beneficial as a result of the reforms he has just secured in his European negotiations. On even cursory examination, however, these reforms don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and even if they did, they would still be inadequate because they are dependent upon future EU agreements rather than being firmly agreed now.

The best example is immigration because, by 80–20 majorities, British voters want to see it cut drastically and control of Britain’s borders regained by London. Cameron promised to meet these demands until recently. But when he realized that the EU would never agree to limits on the free movement of labor, he quietly shelved them and instead called for a “waiting period” of four years before new EU migrants to Britain became eligible for social benefits. It was argued that this fulfilled Cameron’s pledge to reduce immigration levels by making “benefits migration” less attractive.

This maneuver was both a cheap appeal to popular prejudices and completely ineffective as a means of reducing immigration. Most — the great majority — of intra-European migrants come to Britain to work, not to go on welfare. They would be largely unaffected by this “reform.” Immigration levels would not fall or even moderate significantly. After four years, however, the immigrant workers would be able to claim welfare benefits for themselves and their dependents — including those dependents living in their country of origin.

The only Euro-way for Britain to avoid paying these benefits to immigrants would be to remove them from British workers too — for London has lost control of welfare policy as well as of immigration. All of which confirms the motto of today’s welfare state: The man who pays the piper not only does NOT call the tune, but also soon finds himself paying for a whole bloody orchestra.

London has lost control of welfare policy as well as of immigration.

A diluted version of this scheme was one of the “achievements” Cameron brought home last week from his European negotiations tour. It still needs to be rubber-stamped by a 28-nation Euro-summit in a fortnight, but it emerged almost at once that even this modest, temporary, and wholly ineffective restriction on immigration (and welfare dependency) was dependent upon a trigger mechanism wielded by Brussels rather than London.

Moreover, many of the other concessions “won” by Cameron turn out to have very similar defects: the exempting of Britain from the obligation to “ever closer Union” in a federal Europe, say, or the declaration that the EU is a multi-currency union. Neither of these will be incorporated in a new treaty because both run counter to the explicit wording of existing EU treaties, which the European Court is sworn to interpret in a federalist spirit. (Federalist in this context means the centralizing of power in Brussels and not, as in the American context, the wider distribution of power.) So, once the horse is inside and the stable door bolted, the court will eventually overturn the concessions to the British, which don’t amount to much in the first place.

Under the usual obscure bureaucratic Euro-bafflegab, the Cameron package does little or nothing to restore power to Westminster. It is a surrender to the existing status quo in the European Union. And though it arrived at a moment when most politicians and commentators were persuaded that the Brits will vote to “Remain” in the forthcoming referendum, it produced an instant reaction of hostility from voters angry that Cameron should take them for such gullible fools — including one eloquent explosion from Charles Moore in Saturday’s Telegraph.

Overnight, there was a large swing in a YouGov opinion poll from Remain to Leave, which now leads by nine points.

Britain is the world’s sixth-largest economy and on its way to becoming the fifth-largest.

Not too much should be read into that swing, however. It represents the shocked reaction to a contemptuously trivial package as much as fixed determination to leave the EU. Both mainstream parties are cynically convinced, however, that they can bring back the majority of voters into the Remain camp by the operations of Project Fear, which will hammer into the British people the belief that a “small” nation like the U.K. simply can’t hack it in today’s dangerous world.

In reality this is nonsense. Britain is the world’s sixth-largest economy and on its way to becoming the fifth-largest. Economically it is far more substantial than other Anglosphere nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and India — all of which manage to stagger along without a protective Big Brother. Strategically, the U.K.’s security is reliant on NATO (where, to put it coolly, it is less of a free rider than any other European member) and not on the EU which, if anything, obstructs NATO efficiency with a “defense identity” that duplicates the North Atlantic alliance and diverts scarce resources away from it.

That said, the odds are that, as in the Scottish independence referendum, Project Fear could instill enough defeatism into the Brits to secure a narrow victory for Remain. If I had to place a serious bet at this stage, I would opt for a 55–45 split on that side. But the various crises in Europe are metastasizing so rapidly and dangerously, it’s clear that they are more likely to spill over into a Britain that remains in the EU than one outside it, and the consequences of the wrong answer are so extreme — notably, the survival of Britain as a self-governing democracy — that a closely divided and still uncertain electorate might go either way.

And, though the latest YouGov poll will probably not have a deep long-term impact on most voters, there is a small and important segment of Brits who might be influenced by it: namely, Tory MPs, and in particular Tory cabinet ministers.

Project Fear could instill enough defeatism into the Brits to secure a narrow victory for Remain.

Except for a handful of principled Europhiliacs, most Tory MPs got into the House of Commons by telling the voters and their constituency members that they were Euro-skeptics. Any genuine Euro-skeptic at this point would be firmly declaring “Better Off Out” and voting Leave. Behind the formulaic “I’m waiting for the final package before deciding,” everyone knows that fundamental point.

But the Cameron government is putting enormous pressure on cabinet ministers, “the payroll vote,” and backbenchers in the House of Commons to support “staying in a reformed EU.” Ambition, as Burke said, can creep as well as soar. MPs and ministers don’t usually defy their own government because it means they risk preferment — promotions or appointments to higher office. They certainly don’t do so for causes apparently lost in advance. The Euro-skeptic cause seemed to be lost until the YouGov poll. Now they are all calculating again.

Here are some matters they might factor into their calculations:

About three-quarters of Tory party members in the country are Euro-skeptic — and passionately so — even after the defection of many of their old friends and colleagues into UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. A slightly smaller percentage of Tory voters are similarly inclined — let’s say 60 percent. Almost all these people have held these views passionately for decades. They either selected or voted for their MPs because they shared the same outlook. And when the referendum comes, they will vote to Leave. Almost everyone I consulted thought that, whatever the overall result, there would be a landslide Tory majority for the Outs.

Now, suppose the referendum produced a Remain victory by a narrow two- or three-point margin. Those supporters will feel a deep sense of betrayal and contempt for those MPs who chose ambition over their country’s independence. On the other hand, ministers who campaign passionately for Leaving will be known thereafter as the leaders or favorites of the majority of the party outside Parliament. Any prime minister will have to take that fact into account. He will need to reunify his splintered party after the bitter divisions of the campaign, and that will mean promoting the darlings of the party’s disillusioned supporters. He may even have to promote them over those who calculated their way into the party loyalty of the hour.

In other words, there are no real risks attached to taking the Leave side.

The danger to the Tory party goes deeper than these temporary embarrassments.

Oddly enough, exactly the same considerations apply if the referendum result is a victory for Leave — with this additional twist. If the Brits vote to Leave, those politicians who rose in politics in part because of their Euro-skeptic reputations will generally look good. If they have fought for the cause of an independent democratic Britain and it wins, they will look shrewd as well as courageous and principled when it wins. But those Euro-skeptics who head for the lifeboats manned by Remain when the test comes, will enjoy a very different reputation. On the morrow of a Leave victory they will be seen by the great majority of the Tory party, including their cabinet colleagues, as timid and unreliable turncoats who bungled even the relatively simple task of selling their own souls.

But the danger to the Tory party goes deeper than these temporary embarrassments. The party has existed in a recognizable form for almost 200 years. Having piloted its way through different ages and controversies, it has naturally changed its stances and policies several times during those two centuries. Robin Harris’s history of the party, The Conservatives, details its somersaults and contortions brilliantly (my review is here). But there has been one abiding theme that has given the party its consistent identity and provided a solid foundation on which the party’s other themes and appeals have rested comfortably: It has been the party of British patriotism. Indeed, one should go further and say that it has been the party that has protected and advanced the interests of the British state throughout this long period. It has been able to do so consistently because its other themes — protection of private property, free trade, free movement of capital, sound money, a tradition of liberty — have reflected the main interests of the British state.

‘The Tory party is a national party or it is nothing.’ — Benjamin Disraeli

Doubtless Cameron and his ministers will argue that they are doing exactly that in the campaign to keep Britain inside the European Union. To argue that plausibly, however, you would have to persuade voters of the paradox that the British state is most effectively defended by being dissolved in another polity and its decisions taken by a series of bureaucratic committees on which British ministers are in a minority. Even if that were so, however, it would mean that the Tories no longer had a purpose because the state they exist to defend had ceased to exist. And if it were not so — if the British state is not best defended by its absorption into Europe — then the Tories are betraying their duty in the deepest sense. It they vote to remain in Europe, they will be voting to embrace their own pointlessness, which in practice means becoming little more than a rich man’s protection society.

“The Tory party is a national party or it is nothing,” said Benjamin Disraeli, their most visionary leader. Their greatest leaders in the 20th century, including Churchill and Thatcher, understood that. David Cameron seems to think that it’s just old-fashioned nonsense. It seems as if it will be up to the Tory faithful to save the party from its feckless leaders.

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