Cameron’s demographic dilemma

Saturday 20 February 2016

So the deal is finally done. The square-bracketed areas of contention removed and the ink drying on the document of Britain’s new ‘special status’ relationship with the EU. Now the real fight begins.

Even before European heads of state had sat down to sign, the numerous Leave campaigns back in Britain had begun in earnest. To them the details of the negotiation and Cameron’s hard fought concessions were irrelevant; a side show to the real meat and drink of the referendum: Britain’s exit from the EU. To these campaigns it is fairly safe to assume that there is nothing that David Cameron could have achieved and levered out of the EU that would have burst their bubble and stopped their launch. They want out, and in that respect the groups are united, if in no other.

One of the campaigns getting underway was remarkable for two reasons. The Go Movement, with their curious potty-green ties and balloons, held a rally attended by two thousand people, with many queuing for hours outside in the rain. Yet more remarkable, and the danger to David Cameron, was the demographic. The vast majority of the audience were of an older generation, the category of voters most likely to vote Conservative in general elections. It is a demographic heavily weighted in Westminster political Out circles and all Out campaigns and splinter grass-root organisations; and, although the Go Movement’s bizarre revealing of their ‘special guest’ George Galloway is unlikely to persuade many don’t knows and the gathering of cabinet ministers at the Vote Leave photo op also unlikely to send shivers down the spines of Remain campaigners, the overriding demographic of the national support for Out is a huge concern for David Cameron. The vast majority of Cameron’s and the Conservative Party’s power base is now actively campaigning for Britain to leave the EU, regardless of any deals, concessions, negotiations or status, special or not.

On the major political issues of the day: Trident, the Scottish Referendum, the last general election, Cameron’s traditional support has stood shoulder to shoulder with him. On arguably the most important political event since the Second World War they won’t. At the Scottish Referendum, the older demographic didn’t like the risk, whether accurately portrayed or not: short-term was their long-term. To the younger generation the risk was a better future; a future they saw as infinitely better than the future they saw continuing to remain bonded with England in the UK.

To Cameron, the Scottish question raises the already huge stakes of the EU referendum to an even higher level. If, for instance, Cameron’s risky strategy doesn’t pay off and Britain votes to leave the EU, then a strong remain vote in Scotland would almost certainly result in a second Scottish referendum. This time, a leave vote would be much more likely. Cameron’s ungraceful speech the morning after the first vote would also not help the cause in a second referendum. Here he spoke the language of division instead of the language of unity. He appealed to his party and traditional English Conservative support, instead of appealing to the nation as a whole. This certainly would not be forgotten.

Cameron has also shown the same lack of grace towards Europe. He says he doesn’t love Brussels, despite its support. At the summits and behind the scenes, he appears personable and amiable, even reasonably well liked, and a strong believer of Britain’s place in the EU. Yet in front of the camera, when addressing the British people, he turns on the EU, even when his European colleagues have gone out of their way to accommodate British demands, referring to it almost as an enemy he has defeated in battle instead of neighbours, partners and close collaborators of similar, modern democratic nations; and, regardless of whether European leaders understand that this is just for his audience at home, this must grate. It is also a sad indictment of the UK’s insular attitudes and poor understanding of Europe for him to feel the need to do this at all.

Britain’s place in the EU is now on a knife edge. Cameron has let the genie out of the bottle and will have great difficulty putting it back. If Britain votes to leave and Scotland follows suit then appealing to the democratic argument of giving people a say on Europe won’t wash compared to a legacy of taking Britain out of the EU and Scotland out of the UK. History will be merciless. There will be no place to hide. And if Britain remains, what will he have achieved compared with not holding the referendum in the first place? And how long will it be after a Remain vote until we see the first anti-EU headlines? Try the very next day.

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