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European Union

Brexit vote is there for the taking, but the shambolic Leave campaign can’t stop people leaving.

“WHO will speak for England?” asked the Daily Mail in a front page editorial last week. Well, so far only a politician who complains about foreigners with HIV coming to Britain, and an 83-year-old, climate change sceptic who lives in France. That would be the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, and the former Tory chancellor, Nigel Lawson, chairman of Vote Leave, respectively. About the only thing they have in common is a first name made famous by XTC in their song Making Plans For Nigel.

None of the big beasts – Boris Johnson, Theresa May et all – seems willing yet to roar for England. They’re too keen on keeping their ministerial limos. David Cameron’s “renegotiation” of Britain’s membership of the European Union amounted to less than a hill of beans last week, but he seems to have faced down any of his cabinet rivals who fancied themselves in Churchillian clothes.

The Mail’s front page editorial echoed calls in parliament in 1939 for pusillanimous politicians to stand up and “speak for England” against the Nazi invasion of Poland. The paper wasn’t comparing the European Union to the Third Reich – heavens, no. It just happened to – you know – like the phrase.

But as was widely pointed out on the internet, the Mail didn’t appear to want anyone to speak for Scotland. Which is probably just as well because last week’s polls showed continuing high levels of support for Brussels among Scottish voters. Scots seem set to back remaining in Europe by at least two to one.

So bring it on – and the earlier the referendum the better. There seems little substance to the claim that a late June referendum might somehow interfere with the Holyrood elections. It’s become a bit like following the national rugby team during the Six Nations. Rejecting English Eurosceptics, who seem to dominate the UK popular press, has become a badge of Scottish pride.

The Tory red-tops are supporting withdrawal with all the grace and subtlety they deployed during the Scottish independence referendum. “ “92 per cent want to quit the EU”, said the Daily Express last week, in a ridiculous voodoo poll reflecting nothing but its own readers’ prejudices.

Mind you, the more reliable polls do seem to indicate that the Brexit campaign is more than just gaining ground. According to YouGov in the Times last week, 45 per cent of UK voters now wish to leave against 36 per cent who want to remain. Some other polls record much lower support for going it alone.

But the fact that the Brexit campaign is making any headway at all is pretty remarkable since it hardly justifies the name. It’s more like an anti-campaign doing everything it can to lose. With less than five months to go to the probable date, it lacks a leader of substance and even a recognisable name.

There is the cross-party Vote Leave which is led by the former Tory chancellor. And there is Leave.EU, which is sort of led by Ukip’s Nigel Farage, though there has been so much acrimony about his leadership of Ukip that even that isn’t certain.

Then there is Grassroots Out, about which little is known, except that it launched last week and supposedly has the support of both Farage and the prominent Labour Eurosceptic, Kate Hoey MP. But not perhaps for much longer. Hoey has just made clear that her own out campaign, Labour Leave, is refusing to have anything to do with either Vote Leave, Leave.EU or Mr Farage. They must do better than this.

The referendum could be there for the taking if Brexit could only get its act together. The Stronger In campaign which supports staying in, also has leadership issues, being led by David Cameron and big business. The pro-EU campaign has tried to replicate Project Fear from the independence referendum. It’s all about how sterling will fall, companies will leave and holidays in Europe will become too expensive.

If the Brexit campaigners had a quarter of the organisational flair and people power of Yes Scotland, they could be storming to a huge victory. At this stage in the Scottish referendum, Better Together was leading by 70 per cent to 30 per cent, yet it was neck and neck by the final week.

Many people criticised the Yes Scotland campaign, myself included, but it managed to remain outwardly united (despite internal divisions), was powerfully led by Nicola Sturgeon and had a clear message. Because of press hostility, it took grassroots activity seriously. Scotland turned into one great debating society in 2014 as people started talking about politics in the way they normally talk about football or celebrity culture. And the result, as we know, was an unprecedented 97 per cent voter registration.

There’s been nothing remotely comparable in the European referendum campaign. This is unfortunate because there are real issues of substance to be addressed, pro or anti. The democratic deficit in the EU institutions needs to be exposed as Brussels imposes austerity policies on countries against the wishes of elected governments.

It is interesting to compare the recent speeches of the Tory MEP and writer Daniel Hannan, and the Marxist former finance minister in the Greek Syriza government, Yanis Varoufakis. Both condemn the way the European Commission has been captured by corporate interests, and claim that a technocratic elite are substituting themselves for the will of the people.

They draw different conclusions, however. Varoufakis opts on balance to stay in the EU and try to democratise the institutions from within. Hannan argues that Britain should leave because the world has moved on and in the age of the internet and free trade we no longer need what he calls a “corporate cartel”.

But this substantial debate is not really happening north or south of the Border. In Scotland people seem minded to vote for whatever Nicola thinks best. That is not a bad or invalid approach. She is an intelligent democratic leader who clearly has Scotland’s best interests at heart. I am inclined to agree with her myself.

But I also find myself wishing the Brexit campaign had a bit more bite and didn’t just rely on the dog whistles of immigration and xenophobia, which is what so many of the Ukip anti-Europeans trade upon. I have criticised David Cameron for pandering to this by making his renegotiation appear to be all about curbing migration and benefits tourism.

Still, I have to say – and here is a shock – I think the deal the Prime Minister negotiated last week is actually quite a reasonable one. There can only be a temporary break in migrant benefits if all 28 countries agree and if it can be shown that a bulge in migration to Britain has actually damaged social provision. That seems fair.

Cameron ducked the broader democratic issues, though he did marginally bolster the powers of national parliaments to challenge the Commission through its red card system. And his defence of British banks was unattractive. But in the end, nothing in the Cameron package damages European unity and it could actually strengthen it.

I can understand the frustration of Eurosceptics, because this is nothing like the migrant ban that many were hoping for. So, well done David Cameron. And when did you last hear me say that?

From Sunday Herald 7/2/16

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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