Brexit vote on a knife-edge

By Andrew Burnyeat    The Brexit polls predict a knife-edge night of nervous nail-biting for both Remainers and Brexiteers on June 23. This needs some explanation, given that the vast majority of centre-right, centre and left politicians, together with a huge majority of business leaders and industry associations want the UK to continue its membership of the European Union (EU).

Yet the good old British public is defying its political leaders and employers in its tens of millions. Why? There are a number of reasons, some of them more ‘tangible’ than others. I’ll attempt to list the main ones.


The EU is associated in the public mind with immigration because it allows the free movement of labour. It’s commonly accepted by millions – though it’s hotly disputed – that migrants take jobs from British workers and put pressure on both the infrastructure and the benefits system.

Labour voters are just as likely to believe this as Conservative ones these days. Ever since the Asylum Act was passed in 1999, Labour attitudes towards immigrants or ‘migrants’ have been changing.  This act was passed by a Labour government.

This has been a slow and steady a change for Labour voters – previously, this was Conservative territory, with a huge proportion of Labour supporters believing that immigration control was about racism, pure and simple.

Along with all the truth spoken about immigration, there has been a lot of lies spread, too. This has been responsible for the rise of the British National Party in local and European elections a few years ago, and partly explains the popularity (albeit limited) of the UK Independence Party.

Fears – often irrational – that politicians have spread about immigration to win votes are backfiring on them now as they seek to persuade those they have made fearful to remain in the EU.


Creeping bureaucracy and open calls for an ever-closer political union are the central reason why the Conservatives have called the referendum in the first place. These are genuine concerns. The UK has resisted Schengen and the euro in order to maintain its distance from the European political project. There is also a worry that the EU is governed not by elected politicians but by bureaucrats, and to an extent there is truth in that. Other factors include the perception that the EU is a “gravy train”, misspent money and over-claimed expenses – all part of an apparently corrupt and unaccountable machine taking millions of pounds every day from us and giving back very little in return.

Also, among many – but not all – trade unionists, is a fear that this centralised management style can act as the ultimate jackboot, stamping out any fight against austerity by blocking funds to democratically-elected governments who don’t toe the line – Greece is the obvious example, but others have been disciplined into imposing measures they didn’t want to in bailout negotiations.


There is a new spectre haunting the West – it is the spectre of populism. From Donald Trump to Boris Johnson and even Heinz Christian Stracher in Austria, it has been shown that the personality can be more important than the facts. It has been possible for all of them to spin the truth almost beyond recognition through a combination of bluster, anger and opportunism. The exaggeration of Britain’s financial contribution to the EU, for example, has persisted despite being deconstructed by the BBCF and other media outlets.

This is the less ‘tangible’ factor in the Brexit debate – a feeling rather than a fact, a (justifiable) sense that something is wrong with mainstream politics and that it needs shaking up by strong characters that can connect with the man in the street.

It is equally possible to argue that fear is keeping people loyal to the Remain camp. Fears that the National Health Service, jobs and the economy would suffer are one thing. Fears that the Brexit campaign is being run by hard-line austerity campaigners, racists and petty nationalists is another.

The real failure of both sides to campaign positively rather than negatively is another factor in the split polls. Negative campaigning has featured strongly in important decisions taken recently by the British, including the 2015 General Election and the Scottish referendum on independence.

It also helps to explain why so many people – 12 per cent – are still undecided after months of campaigning.

One extra X-factor may still come into play. The BBC has speculated that a recent surge in support for Brexit was simply Bank Holiday exuberance. If they are right, then Remain campaigners may be wondering which bright spark called the referendum three days after what may prove to be England’s last game in this year’s European Championships.