Whilst the media has been focusing on the high-profile air war of the campaign, with its cast of the usual personalities, the EU referendum is a truly national political event – perhaps, in this age of incoherent devolution, more so than a general election.
Not only will the results in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland directly affect the result on the night, but they may also shape how the impact of Brexit (should it happen) is felt around the UK.
Unlike England, where the referendum has been the main story for months, all three had devolved elections which dominated their political debates until May, so their campaigns may be closer to sprints than marathons. That said, how does it look like they will vote?
Scotland has long been predicted as a Remain stronghold. The dominant SNP is officially pro-EU (it is a cornerstone of their “independence in Europe” model), as are Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and most elected Conservatives including the leader, Ruth Davidson.
The most prominent elected Eurosceptic north of the border is David Coburn, UKIP’s colourful and rather haphazard MEP. Yet the public face of Vote Leave has instead been Tom Harris, the former Labour MP and Cabinet minister from the party’s Blairite wing.
Brexiteers have benefited from the SNP being muddled on the subject: many of their voters seem to back Leave, whilst the party is struggling to justify sticking with a big, remote European Union whilst rejecting a more coherent British one.
Polls show Scotland looking certain to deliver a strong Remain result, but support for the EU seems to be dipping and the gulf between it and England’s result may not be so wide as the Nationalists have been hoping.
Last month saw UKIP break into the Welsh Assembly for the first time with seven AMs, and Brexit seems almost certain to deliver a respectable showing even if it doesn’t carry the day. Andrew RT Davies, the Welsh Tory leader, also backs Leave.
Northern Ireland is usually semi-detached from mainstream British politics, with even its unionist parties rarely trying to take part in a ‘national’ politics. As a result of this most political polling tends to be ‘GB only’, covering only England, Scotland, and Wales.
As some have pointed out, this exclusion of Remain-leaning Ulster is probably leading pollsters to understate Remain’s score by a point or so.
Of the province’s five largest parties only one – the Democratic Unionists – is campaigning for a Leave vote. It is however the largest party in Northern Ireland and is fronted by Arlene Foster, the popular First Minister, so its reach – at least amongst unionists – shouldn’t be under-estimated.
The smaller Ulster Unionists, both nationalist parties (Sinn Fein and the SDLP), and the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party are all pro-Remain, and that side seems to have the decisive advantage. Leave seem to be held back by an inability to cut through to Catholic voters, who are deeply concerned about the impact of Brexit on relations with the Republic of Ireland.
As we enter the final week of the race, Leave would do well to fight as hard as possible to close these gaps. Nationalists in all three countries – abetted, at times, by desperate pro-Remain unionists – are keen to exploit any divergence as an opportunity to undermine our own Union.
Not only will Leave votes in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland weigh as much as those from England, but strong Leave performances in those places will allow the country to approach Brexit, should it occur, in a stronger position.