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To Scots, Brexit debate seems like two bald Tories arguing over a comb.

WHEN Boris Johnson announced on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that the EU referendum is about “project hope versus project fear” I just about choked on my porridge. I have remarked before on the similarities between the Europe referendum campaign and the Scottish independence campaign. But the Brexit show is beginning to sound like comic parody.

Hearing right-wing Tories like the London Mayor trying to speak the positive language of the Common Weal and appealing to the example of Norway is just too much. Or when the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, accused David Cameron of running down Britain and saying “we’re too small, we’re too little, we’re too inconsequential” to stand on our own. This was a paraphrase of the independence referendum mantra “too wee; too poor; too stupid”.

I don’t know if the Brexiteers are conscious of their rhetorical tributes to the Yes campaign – I suspect they don’t care. There are many superficial similarities between the Leave and the independence campaign, but they aren’t really the same thing. The fundamental difference is that the Europe debate is largely being conducted within the UK political and economic establishment rather than in opposition to it. It is an intra-Tory, blue on blue matter, and so far has not engaged the popular imagination.

The arguments are about whether Britain could halt immigration faster in or out of Europe, and whether businesses would be better off dealing with Europe or with the rest of the world. True: there is also the democratic accountability argument which Boris Johnson tried to mount at the weekend, but that is still very abstract for most voters and is not a central message. To most Scottish voters, the Brexit debate looks like a couple of bald Tories arguing over a comb.

In Scotland, the case for independence was largely framed in terms of social justice: a better society, escaping Conservative austerity, emulating Nordic communitarianism. What made the Scottish independence campaign so unusual was that it was not framed in the conventional terms of national or ethnic exceptionalism. Here’s tae us; wha’s like us. It was a question about national sovereignty addressed as an issue of social change.

The independence campaign also ignited a debate that became self-sustaining on social media and in public meetings across Scotland. Ninety-seven per cent of the adult population registered to vote in September 2014, and turnout was 85 per cent – the highest since the introduction of universal adult suffrage. It seems unlikely this will be repeated in the EU referendum in June. David Cameron was wise to hold the referendum sooner rather than later. The Scottish independence campaign had two years in which to grow its grassroots.

I suspect that many Brexiteers believed that the press hostility to Europe would effortlessly translate into popular support for Leave. Most of the tabloid press is virulently hostile to Europe, but the conventional media doesn’t seem to be having as much impact as in the past.

The press was almost universally hostile to independence in 2014 but as the ballot drew near this seemed to matter less and less. This was partly because the Yes campaign concentrated on street-level organisation. They kept their arguments positive and went under the radar of the negative Better Together campaign and its press transmitters.

The Brexit campaigners are trying to learn from the Yes Scotland campaign in that they are doing their best to sound optimistic, positive, smiley and unthtreatening. Boris went on to say that Britain’s present condition resembled that of a prison inmate sitting in a jail with the door half open and seeing the sunny uplands outside but only thinking about the risks. I’m pretty sure I remember that image from the independence referendum too.

And it is true that the same coalition of banks and big business has lined up to warn of the dangers of “instability” of Brexit and that many are threatening to leave, much as they did over Scottish independence. When a member of the establishment advocates independence, like John Longworth of the British Chambers of Commerce, they are quickly dispatched into outer darkness.

But that only underlines the extent to which this is an intra-elite debate. British voters have never really been a part of it. And I suspect that – like the Scots – they are going to sit this one out.

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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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