Who scares, wins? The unintended political consequences of the British EU referendum debate


by Mikko Kuisma

David Cameron has created a monster. The British EU referendum on 23 June might be used in the future as a warning example of unintended consequences. It is ostensibly about Europe and British membership in the EU but, in fact, it is much more about internal UK power battles and especially those within the Prime Minister’s party. Also, the short term economic gains or losses might be less dramatic than the disaster scenarios and sensationalist mudslinging would let us believe. Regardless of which side wins, what could be more significant is that the referendum and the months of the rather childish tug-of-war debate leading to it might have a potentially long-lasting impact on British politics and society. Certainly, if I was the instigator of this whole process, I would not be very proud of this prospect.

As has been observed by many commentators, both sides have run an incredibly negative campaign. Both sides have been engaged in scaremongering and presenting doomsday scenarios, convincing the voters that the world will all but end on the 24 June should the enemy win. Indeed, even the Remain side has been running a campaign against Brexit rather than for Europe. The campaigns have often been based on “objective economic analysis”. However, crystal ball gazing is a notoriously difficult exercise and, following Dick Cheney’s now infamous philosophy, the real impact of the referendum is one of the known unknowns. Even in the most sophisticated analyses, the expressions that dominate are “we believe”, “I trust”, “this report claims”, “our research institute estimates” or “the experts forecast” a certain future rather than a certain other. What else could they do? Obviously, some of the scenarios might be more probable than some others but there is really no way of knowing which ones those are.

Another aspect where the campaigns have been particularly disappointing is the smoke and mirrors that both sides have played on this being about Europe and the EU. Instead, this is a political battle of a very peculiar British nature. It is based on the politics of identity and particular readings and understandings of British history and British political tradition. The two sides would do everyone a favour if they actually admitted this. Also, the consequences of the referendum might be of more relevance to the institutions of British politics. Indeed, there is a good chance that the referendum will lead, not to a short term implosion of the British economy, but a political crisis within the cabinet and the Tory party. It could also trigger a second Scottish independence referendum, represent significant gains to the UK Independence Party and potentially generate a lot of social and political instability. We might be perfectly ready to take that risk and also approach some of these issues with a degree of indifference but it would be good to acknowledge them rather than sleepwalk into them.

One unintended consequence might already have progressed so far that it cannot be reversed. Namely, regardless of the formal outcome of the referendum, the debate itself has already changed the nature of UK society and particularly how it is portrayed by others. The UK has been my home for the past 19 years and this is the first time that I have properly started to feel that I am not welcome here. And this sentiment is shared by many of the immigrants I know. It has always been a welcoming, tolerant, open-minded country but now large groups of people who have worked hard and have made a contribution to both the economy (by paying taxes, for instance) and society (by, for example, educating the next British generations) are being made to feel like intruders. It might be unnecessary but many European migrants are now wondering what will happen to them if the leave campaign wins. Anyone who has lived in the country permanently for a long time could simply solve the issue by applying for citizenship but wouldn’t they be doing it for all the wrong reasons? In any case, the debate has already made many of us feel like outsiders in the country that we have learned to call home. And, even if remain wins, this will not change overnight.

In terms of sovereignty, the referendum will make no difference whatsoever. Britain is a major player in global politics and global economy. It has always played an active role in advancing global capitalism and liberalism, which, some could argue, is by definition all about reducing sovereignty of nation-states in the favour of free market forces. Leaving the EU would not restore British national sovereignty because supranational aspects of 21st century politics and economy do not stop at the borders of Europe. Even total isolationism or closing of national borders would not result in perfect sovereignty. Likewise, British continued membership in the EU will not transfer all of national sovereignty to the cryptic corridors of power in Brussels. After all, the EU is not a monolith that exists outside of the British sphere of politics. Britain does not have a relationship with the EU – it is (still) a member of it.

In the end, this is essentially a political debate rather than a contest of who can most accurately predict the future of British economy in or out of the EU. It is high time we acknowledge this. It should not be so much about the final outcome of the referendum and its consequences but more about the reasons why people vote for either Remain or Leave. Those who have the right to vote on 23 June should definitely do so but they should avoid making their choices based on the “economic truths” that we have been force-fed from both sides of the debate. These “objective truths” can be politically motivated and are, in any case, contingent on multiple internal and external factors, which no one can possibly predict or forecast in advance. The electorate should liberate themselves from the counterproductive scaremongering and contradicting economic forecasts and feel able to make their choices based on what they believe is right, where they believe Britain belongs, and let the politicians and other experts face the known unknowns head on once the votes have been counted. And, of course, it is worth thinking about some of the potential political consequences and deciding if those are the risks they are prepared to take. 


Photograph by Paul Medley

Photograph by Paul Medley

Dr Mikko Kuisma is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University. Mikko received his PhD from the University of Birmingham where he also held an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. Before joining Oxford Brookes he worked as Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Wales Aberystwyth and as Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Mikko lectures on European politics, comparative welfare states, citizenship and global governance. His current research focuses on the comparative political economy of European welfare states, with a special interest in the constitution of citizenship in national models of capitalism, European populist radical right parties, and Nordic politics. 



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