The Out campaign launched last Friday (well, one of the Out campaigns anyhow); today, it is the In campaign’s turn. It goes without saying that I wish them all the success and luck in the world.
Britain since 2010 has gone from being a country that almost never had referenda to one going through an era of the things. First up was the AV referendum, in May 2011. As a veteran of the much maligned (much of the opprobrium deserved) Yes campaign, I have an insight into how these things go – and go wrong. It is easy for a campaign to begin talking only to itself and lose perspective on where the rest of the country is. This is a danger in party political campaigns as well, obviously, but with referendum campaigns the danger of this is particularly acute: parties have history to call upon, whereas by their very nature, referendum campaigns are temporary beings with no past to call upon for perspective. You really don’t know how well or badly you are doing until about three weeks or so out, and even then, you’ll only know one way or another definitely if the margin of victory will be heavy for either side.
Look at Scotland: most of us thought it would be a trouncing for the No side, something similar to the one No to AV managed to pull off. Yet a few days out from the vote, a poll put Yes slightly ahead. We thought we’d learned everything from AV: people go for the status quo in this age of fear overwhelmingly, and the independence campaign thus never had a real shot. We saw in September 2014 just how wrong we were. Turns out the anti-political rage that Yes to AV failed to rouse in any way, shape or form could be called forth by the right people in the right set of circumstances.
So now we come to what is hopefully the last in a trilogy of referenda (after which, we can all go back to having things decided by the House of Commons again). Only we haven’t really come to it all at; we just have the launch of the campaigns, who need to get a head start even though we still have no idea when the actual poll itself will take place. A lot can happen between now and, well, whenever. But I think the Ins have a few things going for them. I know Cameron wants to hide his cards, but at this stage I cannot see how the prime minister can do anything but openly campaign for staying in the EU. He’s gone too far down a certain road to turn back. Besides, in order to advocate Out, he’d have to admit failure on his part, again, something I find hard to envisage. There is also Nigel Farage to help as a repellent to those undecided. But nothing can be taken for granted: the fight will be hard fought and it will almost certainly be close, either way.