The loathed political establishment should still win it for the In campaign
This may be the era of the outsider, but the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union will still benefit from having such a broad range of big beasts.
Has there ever been such an unequal contest? Now we have the date of the EU referendum we can more see vividly the one sided nature of the forthcoming campaign.
On the ‘In’ side there is the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, most of the rest of the cabinet, every living former Prime Minister, the most recent Foreign Secretaries including William Hague who fought one of the most Euro-sceptic election campaigns when he was party leader.
These weighty political figures will be joined, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, most Labour MPs, Nicola Sturgeon and an army of senior business leaders.
Leading the campaign against will be a small number of cabinet ministers, UKIP, a fair number of Conservative MPs and few Labour ones.
As an emblematic sequence compare the ‘out’ rally on Friday night with David Cameron’s statement outside Number Ten naming the date of the referendum and making the case for continued membership. On Friday night speakers wearing Monty Python like ties, arriving on stage to comically incongruous upbeat music put the case for ‘out. The day after the Prime Minister spoke authoritatively outside Number Ten, framing his support for ‘In’ as an address to the nation. Cameron’s appearance was part of a delicately choreographed sequence that had been carefully planned for months.
The answer to my opening question is that there has been such an unequal contest. It took place in 1975 when the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called a referendum on the same issue. The parallels with then and now are strangely precise. More of less the same number of cabinet ministers will defy their leadership and play a prominent role in the ‘out’ campaign. The then leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, supported continued membership although she already had some reservations. Much of the establishment was in favour.
The main substantial argument of those arguing for 'out' is the same now as it was then too. Michael Gove’s elegantly written statement as to why he is in favour of ‘out’ has distinct echoes with the case put by the Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn in 1975 and subsequently.
In his statement Gove wrote : “I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change.” This was Benn’s theme too. Benn was not bothered with populist arguments about whether prices would go up or down if the UK left. He was obsessed with accountability and the primacy of the elected UK parliament. This is now Gove’s pivotal and powerful argument. As a bonus parallel Benn was always assiduously polite. So is Gove.
There is a single big difference between the broader political mood in 1975 and now, and it appears to be hugely in favour of the 'out' campaign. Without qualification in 1975 the range of support from authoritative public figures was an advantage for the ‘in’ campaign. Now leading figures in the ‘out’ campaign look across the western world and note that perceived ‘outsiders’ are soaring, conveniently positioned as the insurgents against the loathed establishment. They have obvious cause for hope. To take one UK example, in the Scottish referendum a mention of the ‘Westminster bubble’ or ‘London’, both vaguely defined, was enough to boost the case for independence.
But here is the twist. The apparent insurgents did not win the referendum in Scotland. The so- called ‘Westminster establishment’ won by a margin of 10 per cent.
In the general election Ed Miliband sought to project himself as an outsider insurgent but it was the Etonian Prime Minister who won. Polls in the UK and elsewhere note intense disillusionment amongst voters against those they elect, some of it fair and some of it unfair. Such tangible hostility does not necessarily translate to support for risky moves such as leaving the EU, the “leap in the dark” as Cameron and George Osborne have both described it and will do so repeatedly over the next few months.
There were few risks in voting UKIP in the European elections of 2014, when Nigel Farage’s party secured the most votes, a sensational triumph. A vote to leave the EU is not the same. More widely it will not be easy to portray the variety of 'in' advocates as 'all the bloody same' and being trapped in the same 'bubble'. Cameron, Corbyn and Sturgeon are hardly similar political figures.
The latest one sided campaign will not necessarily produce a one sided result as it did in 1975, when the advocates of ‘In’ won by a big margin. But even in this era of the ‘insurgent outsider’ it will prove to be hugely to the advantage of the current ‘In’ campaign to have such a range of advocates. While referendums can be nerve shredding, emotionally charged and wildly unpredictable the mountain of titans who support ‘in’ will have to make an almighty mess of the campaign to lose on June 23rd.
Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown chat ahead of a Diamond Jubilee lunch hosted by David Cameron in 2012.