Strange things referendums: On the one hand, they provide the most direct, unadulterated will of the people; on the other, they commit the whole nation to a course that may be hazardous, bypassing institutions that would have protected the whole and its parts. On June 23, Britons will choose between remaining in the European Union and leaving for the unknown. Recent polls show a population that is almost evenly split. Much can change in three weeks but it seems certain that a little over half of those who vote will impose on the rest something that they did not want and which will determine the future of all.
Referendums are divisive. When a nation’s fate is at stake, we must ask why social cohesion and the country’s place in the world should be placed in the balance when there is no pressing need for this and when the outcome is so uncertain. The arguments on both sides of the debate do not answer this question. The Remain camp stresses the benefits of staying in the European Union and the dangers of leaving, while the Brexit camp argues that Britain loses from its participation in the Union and can expect huge gains by pulling out. This is not a difference of opinion, it is a different way of perceiving reality. Great passions are aroused in a field of confusion. The Remain people extrapolate from current reality, while the Leave camp invests in promises.
So why the contest? Many factors are at play, including “British exceptionalism.” But however much the Britons may savor their distance from “the Continent,” when they were asked in 1975 whether they wanted to remain in the Common Market, 67 percent voted “Yes.” Being part of the EU while staying out of the euro turned out to be a successful combination: Britain has been able to function as a special member of a much larger economic and political whole. This, along with traditional British inventiveness, the rule of law and credible institutions, has made London a giant financial center. This encourages Brexit fans to claim that the country will achieve the same when it is apart from the Union.
The referendum, however, appears to be chiefly the result of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s inability to deal decisively with “Euroskeptics” in his own party, especially after the UK Independence Party began to make gains. Cameron is a protagonist on the side of Remain, while leading the charge for Leave is the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who would like to become prime minister. Britain’s place in Europe depends on the will of the majority on June 23. This, however, will be determined to a large extent by a personal rivalry that began decades ago at Eton, the elite school that Cameron and Johnson attended. Referendums are dangerous things indeed, magnifying the will of the few – sometimes the very few – to sway a nation’s fate.