Two weeks today, the referendum will finally come to an end, as we troop down to the local primary school or community centre. The temptation is to write that the county will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over. But I’m not sure that’s true; it feels to me rather as though most people simply aren’t paying any attention at all, so poor has the campaign been thus far, and so permanent a feature of British life has the ‘debate’ become.
I put ‘debate’ in inverted commas, because there hasn’t really been one. All we’ve had is a vociferous anti-European faction making over and over again the same points that they’ve been making for years, and, er, that’s it. There isn’t much of a pro-European faction any more, just a managerial class that believes that, in politics as in golf, one has to play the ball where it lies.
This is to be regretted. Around twenty-five years ago, when the issues were membership of the ERM and signing the Maastricht Treaty, there were genuine Europhile voices to be heard. Senior figures in both main parties (Tory Chris Patten and Labour leader John Smith among them) argued their case with enthusiasm and conviction. But the positive vision has dissolved over the last couple of decades, and all we’re left with is a vague impression that to remain is the least worst option. Even David Cameron doesn’t sound as though he believes himself on the rare occasions when he revives his old ‘let sunshine win the day’ shtick.
The consequence is that the waters are muddied. The opinion polls struggle to make sense of where the nation stands on this question. But, just as horse-racing is a dull spectacle if one doesn’t have any money riding on the outcome, so any electoral contest is much the poorer if one hasn’t made a prediction. So here’s mine…
When this referendum became inevitable, following the Conservative Party’s victory in the election last year, I predicted that the result would be 56 per cent to 44 per cent in favour of staying in the EU. This wasn’t based on opinion polls, or on any other supposedly objective measurement. It was just a gut feeling that came from years of listening to radio phone-in shows on the subject.
I’m still listening to those shows. And I’ve heard nothing to change my mind.
Just to be clear: this isn’t a simple numbers game. Most of those who ring up radio stations to air their opinion are still in favour of leaving, as they’ve always been. But that’s not the true measure of the situation: that merely reflects the fact the remainers lack all conviction, while the leavers are full of passionate intensity.
The point is that the voices I’m hearing don’t seem to have changed; they’re still coming overwhelmingly from those inclined towards Ukip. I get no sense of their argument having won over a new section of the electorate. There are no new accents or attitudes to be heard. And, by themselves, those who think Nigel Farage is talking good common sense aren’t enough to win, not even with the addition of fellow-travellers from the Tory and Labour voting blocks.
My prediction, therefore, is still the same. The result will be narrower than in 1975 (which came out 67 to 33 per cent), but the lead for remain will be in double-digits.
Which means that on the 24th June, I may well be back here apologising for being so spectacularly wrong. But I would point out (while I still have the opportunity to brag) that I did correctly predict – against all the polls and most of the commentators – that the result of the general election last year would be ‘a Conservative government with a small majority’.