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Politics

Guy de Jonquieres -- Elite at bay in Brexit vote

Whatever the outcome of Britain's European Union referendum, two predictions can already be made with some confidence. One is that most voters will not be expressing a considered opinion on the pros and cons of staying in or getting out of the EU. The other is that the event is likely to unleash a wave of profound change in politics in Britain and, in time, quite possibly elsewhere in Europe too. 

In truth, most British voters know too little about how the EU works or what membership entails to be able to give an informed answer to the question being put to them. The organization is considered too remote, too technically complex, too opaque, too anonymous and too far beyond the general public's capacity to influence for that.

Daily barrages of propaganda and counter-propaganda by the Remain and Leave campaigns seem to have done more to confuse than enlighten undecided voters, especially as those blasts increasingly consist of distortions, scaremongering and downright untruths. Many voters complain that what they most need in order to make up their minds is more "facts," while others seem simply to be closing their ears.

That was doubtless also true in 1975, the last time Britain held a referendum on Europe. In the end, two thirds of the electorate voted to stay in on that occasion, opting for the relative safety of the status quo over the gamble of leaping into the unknown. But much has changed in the past four decades that suggests that things may not play out that way again.

The Remain side has campaigned squarely on pocketbook issues, arguing that Brexit would create massive short-term market uncertainty and permanently harm the economy and living standards. Its warnings have been echoed by most independent economists, the Bank of England, an impressive array of international institutions and a long line of foreign leaders headed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

At another time, all that might have been enough to swing the vote Remain's way. However, a recent growth of support for Brexit identified by opinion polls suggests the message is not really getting through. The main reason is that the Leave campaign has gained an edge by tapping into a deep seam of public anxiety and targeting highly emotive issues that appeal to the heart rather than the head.

The most potent is immigration, now ranked by opinion polls as the biggest public concern. Though less than 13% of Britain's population is foreign-born, a rapid rise in numbers in recent years has fueled discontent, particularly from those lower down the social scale. Immigrants are commonly blamed for stealing jobs, sponging off the state, competing for scarce housing and putting pressure on public services.

Failed pledge

Most of these accusations are wildly exaggerated or demonstrably false. However, Leave has capitalized on popular unease, berating the Conservative government over a failed pledge to limit immigrant numbers and emphasizing that EU rules entitle people from anywhere in the bloc to settle in Britain. Only by voting for Brexit, they argue, can the country "take back control."

That rallying cry has resonated in a country where rapid change, greater income inequality and heightened uncertainty have led to a looming sense of insecurity and a yearning for a return to a safer -- though often imagined -- past. Just 11% of Britons say they think the world is becoming a better place. Immigration is not the only, or even main, cause of this malaise. However it has become a powerful lightning rod through which it is communicated.

In parallel, trust in institutions and in the political establishment has dwindled. A series of scandals and failures has shaken public confidence in once-revered institutions such as the BBC and even the National Health Service. The global financial crisis and a backlash over lavish executive pay have bred mistrust of banks and big business, while parliament and the main political parties are widely regarded as self-interested and out of touch. Opinion polls regularly rank politicians lowest of all in terms of trustworthiness and public esteem.

Though the leaders of the Leave campaign are Conservative politicians, some still government ministers, they have escaped this general opprobrium by running against their own parties and posing as outsiders who speak for the underdog. They have sought, apparently with some success, to dismiss predictions by the Remain camp and by business leaders that Brexit would create economic havoc as self-serving warnings by a pampered elite out to preserve its own privileges at the expense of the general public.

Whether Leave's appeal to popular disgruntlement or Remain's emphasis on economic self-interest proves decisive with the electorate will become clear on June 23 -- or the day after, if the result of the referendum is close. It is possible that the shocked national reaction to the murder on June 16 of Jo Cox, a popular pro-Remain Labour parliamentarian, will tilt the balance of the vote. It is too early to be sure, although the crime has led to a temporary suspension of referendum campaigning and caused Conservative and opposition Labour leaders to close ranks in tribute to her.

But whatever the referendum outcome, it promises to have a deep and enduring impact on Britain's politics and on its future governance.

The effects will be most immediate and dramatic if Brexit wins. That would almost certainly prompt David Cameron's resignation as prime minister, triggering fierce competition to succeed him, while placing triumphant pro-Leave politicians in a strong position to dictate the next government's agenda. Its leaders would be plunged into immensely complex, unpredictable and probably ill-tempered negotiations with the EU on the terms of separation that would swamp the machinery of government for years to come.

Deep rifts

However, a Remain victory, especially a narrow one, would not mean a return to politics as usual. The referendum has exposed deep and possibly irreparable rifts in both of Britain's main parties. This is most obvious in the Conservative party, where bitter hostilities between former colleagues have been likened to a civil war and have even led pro-Brexit members to threaten to vote against future government legislation.

Labour is scarcely in better shape. Its cohesion has been severely strained by last year's surprise choice of Jeremy Corbyn as leader -- a veteran left-winger with whose views most Labour members of parliament strongly disagree. The referendum campaign has added to Labour's woes by brutally exposing how out of touch it has grown with poorer voters, traditionally its core supporters, many of whom now threaten to desert it for the anti-EU and anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party.

Whether either major party can bridge these deep internal divisions is open to serious question. There is increasing speculation in political circles that both could break up after the referendum, precipitating a fundamental and doubtless messy realignment of British politics that could make the country hard to govern for an indefinite period.

That prospect can only increase the anxiety in Brussels and other European capitals caused by Britain's referendum. The reason is not just that the vote may fuel rising anti-EU sentiment in other countries. It is because it is increasingly clear that the EU's unpopularity is rooted in a much broader and deeper public disenchantment with national political systems and the established order within countries.

In most of Europe, power has long alternated regularly between traditional mainstream parties. But that pattern is breaking down. In nations including France, Austria, Spain and the Netherlands, political establishments are threatened by insurgent populist parties, many of which espouse extreme right-wing nationalist platforms. Some of their leaders are more popular than the government heads they seek to displace.

Though many of those parties rail against the EU, their real support stems from a growing public perception that their countries' political systems have failed to deliver. The result is a mood of alienation, frustration and powerlessness in much of the population and increasing resentment and suspicion of ruling elites. A scent of rebellion is in the air. Dealing with it is likely to pose an even bigger challenge than coping with the consequences of Brexit.

Guy de Jonquieres is a senior fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy, a Brussels-based think tank, and a former Financial Times journalist.

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