Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Why Vote Leave.
Journalists have a cliché for every occasion, and the referendum has summoned forth several old favourites: “blue-on-blue”, “Tory splits”, “civil war”. This time, though, they’re wrong. I don’t just mean that they’re wrong in the sense that they miss the bigger issue: whether Britain remains part of the unfolding disaster in the EU is a vastly more important matter than rows between ministers. I mean they’re plain false.
I can remember an actual “Tory civil war” over the EU: the one provoked by the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s. Nothing in the current campaign gets close to acrimony of those years, when vicious briefings were a daily occurrence and long-standing friendships were ruptured.
Which, on the surface, is odd. After all, the referendum is a bigger deal than Maastricht. In 1992, Eurosceptics believed that they could secure Britain’s independence by blocking one treaty. Since then, the EU has acquired a foreign policy, a presidency, a criminal justice system, citizenship, a currency, legal personality and treaty-making powers. Most Eurosceptics, without shifting their views, have been forced to the conclusion that the only way to escape the superstate is through secession. The EU’s utter refusal to make concessions during the recent renegotiation put the question beyond doubt: there is no way to stay in and avoid deeper integration.
I have been in some 40 debates against Remainers, many of them with other Conservative politicians; and, so far, only one has been ill-tempered. In general, Leavers and Remainers accept that this is an issue on which decent people can disagree, and the tone has been civil.
Why? Because David Cameron has been wise enough to allow his MPs to follow their consciences. When John Major made support for Maastricht a test of party loyalty, he made it personal. Eurosceptics came to suspect that their opponents were abandoning their principles for the sake of preferment; supporters of Maastricht, by contrast, accused sceptics of being overlooked, embittered and unappeasable.
Such was the mood when, on September 16 1992, Britain was forced out of the ERM. John Major had insisted that leaving the ERM would cause unemployment and a slump (which, come to think of it, is pretty much what he now says about leaving the EU); in the event, it led to the longest period of low-inflationary growth we have known. As Charles Moore wrote in The Spectator at the time, “The Eurosceptics will despise him for having got it wrong, and he will resent them for having got it right”.
It’s true that, this time, there are strong feelings – there always are in a competitive situation with high stakes. Behavioural psychologists have written whole libraries about why, in such circumstances, we struggle to see any merit in the opposition’s claims. We become convinced that ours is the true position and, since the other lot must be seeing the same facts as us, we wonder how they can deny the evidence of their eyes.
Hence, in this as in all campaigns, we see the phenomenon of each side doubting the other’s motives: “We deal in facts, they deal in scare stories!” I confess to finding this tendency especially funny among Remainers, who like to think themselves as evidence-based, rational people, but who can’t see that they’re subject to the same self-serving biases as the rest of the human race; then again, that could be my own self-serving bias at work.
Be that as it may, the end of the referendum campaign will see a natural calming of tensions. We won’t see the lingering resentments that poisoned Conservative politics for a decade after Maastricht. Sure, each side will have its complaints. I’m still cross about the sequestration of £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money to promote the Remain side; and I’m furious at the way Number 10 has been hinting at honours for signatories of these pro-EU letters. But it’s only fair to see the wider context: David Cameron gave us the referendum in the first place; accepted the Electoral Commission’s proposed wording for the question; didn’t rig the franchise; and kept the Conservative Party neutral.
The referendum will be definitive. If we vote to remain, the EU will accept our capitulation. The various nasties that have been held back until June 23 – the ban on electrical appliances, the regulation of our commercial ports, the budget hike, the harmonisation of social security – will be rushed through, and Britain will carry on being assimilated into a political union. If, on the other hand we vote to leave, our gradual reorientation away from an enervated eurozone, back to the wider world, can begin.
You know what? Either way, we’ll still live in a blessed country. Our countryside, thick, green and rank with June, will still be the finest on Earth. We will still be a bold, spirited, inventive people. Our friends, including those who voted the other way, will still be our friends. Cheer up!