The voters grope their way blindly towards the 23rd June referendum. (King Lear and the Fool by Ary Scheffer [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
We’ll probably look back at the weeks before the EU Referendum as we do today to the summer of 1939 – the ‘phoney war’ before the real horror of the Second World War took hold of the continent.
It is as if we are sleep walking towards the coming storm.
We are facing, in case you have been stationed in Antarctica in the last two months, the most important decisions the British public have been asked to decide on for forty years: to stay in the EU, or to leave it.
In fact the whole of the UK has only ever faced two referenda in history – the first in 1975 to remain in the EEC - which split the Labour Party, arguably irreparably, through the 1970s and 80s. The second, in 2011, on the alternative vote system which resulted in a 68% no to changing the first past-the-post system. That resounding result finally put paid to the Liberal Democrats hopes of remaining a significant challenge to the post-war Tory/Labour domination of Parliament.
The June 23rd referendum is supposed to resolve, once and for all, the issue of whether we stay in or out of the EU. But, if you recall, they said something similar about the Scottish referendum to leave the UK. Look north and you will see the independence cause looks very much alive today – all the more so because of the threat of Brexit.
If we vote to leave, expect Scottish independence within five years at most. With Scottish independence we can also say goodbye to Trident, amongst other unintended consequences. Those flying the Union Jack today at Brexit rallies would face the reality of a disarmed and diminished dis-United Kingdom, and a flag that belongs in a museum.
There is something quite Shakespearian about this unfolding tragedy. Like King Lear, we have been groping our way towards a perilous cliff, oblivious to the traumas that lie ahead, whatever ways the vote goes. We have had little information, but plenty of wind, lightning and demented rage.
So what else is at stake here?
The current polls suggest this vote is too close to call. Bizarre factors like Glastonbury, or the ‘expat’ vote, not included by pollsters, could even swing it, so a vote either way is unlikely to put the issue of Brexit to bed. Even if we do vote to remain, UKIP won’t suddenly disappear and might still be the largest party representing the UK after the next European elections in 2019. Expect more pints, fags and Eurosceptic quips from Mr Farage.
Similarly, the issue which has dogged the Conservative Party, brought down Margaret Thatcher and John Major (Labour can take a crumb of credit for the latter) and threatens to derail David Cameron’s government may split the party so badly that Labour will come to power. That, and having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, seemed fanciful a few months ago. Not now.
The Leave and Stay camp of the Conservative Party are taking bigger and bigger lumps out of each other as the campaign drags towards the finish line and there is open talk of a backbench coup against David Cameron. John Major’s quip on the Andrew Marr show that the NHS would be, "as safe as a pet hamster in the presence of a hungry python" with the ‘court jester’ Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith, is a sign of how bitter the battle has become This from a former Prime Minister previously lampooned for being grey and dull.
Jeremy Corbyn may take some satisfaction from watching the Conservative party self-destruct, but he may well end up the one leading tortured negotiations on – well, everything. A Brexit vote will certainly clog up Parliamentary business for the next five to ten years and Corbyn (a late, and perhaps reluctant, supporter of Remain) is likely to struggle as Prime Minister as the economic shock waves batter the UK, at least in the short term.
Other unintended consequences?
The Republic of Ireland will, no doubt, thrive as businesses and the financial sector head for the only other English speaking nation in the EU. If property prices in Dublin are crazy now, wait for a year or two after Brexit.
Also expect the reintroduction of some form of border controls in Northern Ireland. Not to stop terrorists, as was the case along the checkpoints and watchtowers of South Armagh in the 1980s, but to stop EU citizens entering the UK from Ireland; or, if our economy tanks, to stop British economic migrants crossing the border to seek work in the Republic and beyond.
For one thing is sure, if we try to limit immigration from the EU, we can forget about free trade or freedom of movement for British expats AKA emigrants. We would be lucky to go on holiday without a visa as the EU would be determined to set an example and dissuade other EU countries from leaving the fold. Expect to have to pay at least 10% tariffs on goods exported to the EU if we leave.
Expect the pound to fall like a stone, at least in the short term. Expect house prices in the Costa del Sol to fall too, and perhaps be ready to welcome hundreds of thousands of elderly, grumpy, impossibly suntanned Brits coming back to get their free NHS care which they will no longer be entitled to in Spain and other EU countries.
The EU will also begin to unravel and possibly fall apart if we have a Brexit vote on June 23rd, which will delight Eurosceptics in Holland, France, Germany, the UK and in other countries on the continent. But looking back on the history of national rivalry, conflict and racism in Europe, many would caution – be careful what you wish for.
Finally, expect Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, perhaps for a few weeks at least before a smiling, calm Jeremy Corbyn waves from Downing Street and prepares to sort out the mess.
Good luck to him on that one.
Dr David McQueen, Lecturer in Politics & Media