Over the last week, the risk of Britain voting to leave the European Union has soared. After months in which most polls have shown a comfortable majority in favor of staying in the E.U., a barrage over the last week has pushed the “Leave” camp ahead in the polls by up to 10 points. The latest survey, by YouGov, puts the pro-Brexit camp eight points ahead, once you take the undecided voters (15% of the total) out of the equation.
How has this happened, when everybody from the Bank of England to the International Monetary Fund, from Barack Obama to Shinzo Abe, from the Trades Union Congress to the Confederation of British Industry, have all warned of the major financial shocks in the near term and economic decline and geopolitical irrelevance in the long term after a vote for Brexit? After two months of campaigning, the chief issues appear to have boiled down to these:
Immigration. This could actually be arguments 1 through 10, but its many nuances are being boiled down to the essence of “there’s just too much of it, and most of that is because all E.U. citizens have the right to come and work here.” Net immigration to the U.K. has averaged some 285,000 people a year over the past three years, adding 0.4% to the population every year. Last year, the figure was 333,000, of which 184,000 came from the E.U. Even if you accept, as most do, that immigration has expanded the tax base and kept the price of both food and services down, the influx—for which there is no end in sight—is changing the face of the country too fast for the population to stomach, and the E.U.’s rules on free movement of labor are an easy target.
Sovereignty. The fear of being bossed around by a united, hostile, and alien Europe has been part of the British (more precisely, the English) national identity since at least the 16th century. During times of national crisis, that notion has galvanized the country, even saved it. More recently, it has been an intellectually lazy substitute for engaging seriously with the question that all small and medium-sized states face in a globalized political world: which powers does it make sense to share with other countries and under what conditions? The E.U. has tried to codify answers through an increasingly constitutional process since 1970. That grates with Britain’s constitutional flexibility (i.e., a strong executive tied down only by an ancient mesh of common law). There are some (see here for one) who can articulate the case for Brexit without resorting to pantomime foreigner-bashing. But it’s hard to present an energetic defense of, say, the European Court of Justice’s role in enforcing the Single Market, or for the European Arrest Warrant, while the country is succumbing to a flare-up of a chronic psychological condition.
Backlash against “Project Fear.” Prime Minister David Cameron and his team have relied too much on fear-mongering to make their point. The tactic succeeded wildly last year in persuading Scottish voters to vote with their wallets rather than their hearts and stay in the U.K., so Cameron and his Treasury chief George Osborne have doubled down with a series of apocalyptic threats, from World War III to cuts in state pensions and even—gasp!—falling housing prices, to keep people on board. Such over-egged warnings have cost the PM credibility, and weakened better-founded arguments about how Brexit would hit the economy. They’ve also allowed the often bogus claims of the Brexit supporters to acquire a sort of moral equivalence. Project Fear has always had one big weapon in reserve: the foreign exchange and bond markets. But they have remained too complacent for too long, and now it’s doubtful whether even last week’s 3% drop in sterling can turn the popular mood around in the nine days before the vote.
Insincerity. There are strong suspicions that the people leading the debate are less concerned with the country’s future than with their own political careers. One long-time friend and political ally of Cameron described him as someone who would privately prefer Brexit if he hadn’t staked his career on the opposite. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who is half-heartedly campaigning for the U.K. to remain the E.U., is almost certainly another closet Brexit supporter, a Socialist who sees the E.U. as the stooge of global capitalism, eroding workers’ rights with its neo-liberal focus on the Single Market. Perversely, this perceived insincerity has hurt the anti-Brexit camp more than it has Boris Johnson, the Tory ex-Mayor of London, who has shamelessly changed his tune on the E.U. to make Brexit the instrument by which he can oust Cameron as party leader and take over as Prime Minister.
Resentment. All of the above are variations on a theme of popular resentment of an elite seen as out of touch. That has intensified every time an establishment figure criticizes those intending to vote for Brexit, whether it be Jean-Claude Juncker, the pantomime villain who heads the European Commission, or Barack Obama (who is genuinely popular and, for the most part, admired in Britain). It’s no accident that one of the few voices to have endorsed Brexit is presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, who plays to exactly the same feelings of alienation, disenfranchisement, and nationalism. Such resentment also explains why Scotland came so close to leaving the U.K. last year. In the end, after much venting, cooler heads prevailed. The pragmatic “nation of shopkeepers” that Napoleon derided could still do likewise, but it’s running out of time to calm down and clear its head.