We all agree that the EU referendum campaign has been unedifying – and we’re not even into the final two weeks of it yet, where the ugliness is bound to increase, particularly after the Leavers got a poll bounce off the immigration stuff. The squalid nature of the debate has come as no surprise to me: referendum debates are always like this. However, usually at least the side advocating change tries to give us a positive case for it rather than just adding to the negativity. In this, the EU referendum campaign has gone against the grain.
What has surprised me is the degree to which Eurosceptic Tories and their allies have put everything on the line for this. Think back to just a year ago: the Tories were revelling in their parliamentary majority, a slim one, but also a majority no one (including themselves) thought was possible. Then, Labour does them a huge favour by electing Corbyn as leader. Decades of hegemony seemed to stretch out in front of them, almost effortlessly. All they had to do was not screw it up right away.
This is what Cameron thought when he charged ahead with the referendum: let’s get this over with fast and move on. Sure, there will be a few fireworks, but surely the Eurosceptics in my own ranks don’t care about leaving the EU as much as they care about staying in power for the rest of time, do they? Apparently the prime minister underestimated greatly the degree to which they care about leaving the EU. Turns out, it trumps everything for a lot of them.
But before everyone gives them credit for at least valuing principle above power, think about what you’ve been hearing some Eurosceptic Tories go on about over the last couple of weeks. Turks joining the EU imminently, leading to mass migration to Britain; the NHS needing to be protected from TTIP arrangements; welfare being under threat via freedom of movement. Every single Tory Brexiteer who has used any of these arguments has been totally disingenuous. They either know they are being liberal with the truth (particularly on the Turkey issue) or they are saying something that directly stands against things they’ve said in the past and even upon which they have stood for office. The idea that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are worried about what TTIP might do the NHS is laughable; as is their sudden defence of the welfare state as it is currently constructed.
None of this seems to matter in the face of what is at stake – leaving the EU is everything to them, apparently. Again, what I find odd is the fact that they need to resort to this NHS loving stuff at all – if there is a strain of modern Conservatism in which leaving the EU is front and centre, why do they need to resort to left-wing arguments to try and convince people about it? Where are the strong centre-right arguments for leaving the EU? They are almost totally absent from the debate. Everything has either been leftie pandering, even from Tories – the NHS stuff is the perfect example – or far-right, UKIP flavoured stuff, like the immigration arguments. There have not been, in fact, any argument for leaving that have been in any way Tory-like at all. Could it be that there just aren’t any? Perhaps the next two weeks will enlighten us in this respect.