On Thursday evening, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Most Singaporeans whom I spoke to before the referendum had strongly believed that Britain would stay. Why did so many get it wrong? I believe that is because there are many elements at play in Britain which boosted the “leave” campaign. These are elements which we either lack here in Singapore, or we take for granted and are therefore worth pointing out.
Internal government division and weak leadership
Britain has been a generally Eurosceptic country, leading to ideological divisions within those in government. These ideological divisions however, do not always turn into political divide. While there was great division during John Major’s government in the 1990s the issue laid dormant during Tony Blair’s administration, only to re-emerge during David Cameron’s leadership. While the economic crisis of the last decade probably had a large role to play in this, one might argue that the lack of Cameron’s ability to control his backbenchers and several key members of his Cabinet led to the horrific split within his government. The fact that he could not stop his own ministers from campaigning against the government’s official line, and the fact that personalities such as Boris Johnson could gather enough political capital such that he could get a seat in Cabinet in spite of holding no portfolio whatsoever demonstrates a lack of control over his own colleagues. Cameron must face the fact that he was outplayed by Johnson, whose defection was most likely a political manoeuvre in order to put himself in better position to be Prime Minister. It would seem that the man who nearly lost Scotland in 2014 has now lost Europe.
The ease with which the EU referendum was transformed into a referendum about immigration
According to The Guardian, “polling suggests discontent with the scale of migration to the UK has been the biggest factor pushing Britons to vote out, with the contest turning into a referendum on whether people are happy to accept free movement in return for free trade… The leave camp tried to make the arguments for Brexit more about the economy and sovereignty than immigration, but quickly found that “taking back control” over immigration was the most resonant message. They also linked immigration to shortages of primary school places, difficulty in getting a GP appointment, and depressed wages.”
The EU is of course more than just immigration – it is much more complex, and the issues are much more nuanced. However, two factors contributed to the derailment of this referendum. First, the failure of the government to keep its election promise of bringing down immigration. Second, and more importantly, the acknowledgement of right-wing parties of ease by which they can transform anti-immigration sentiments into anti-European sentiments through shrewd political messaging. The targeting of a specific class of persons by right-wing parties in order to fuel support for their political objectives is not a new concept. This brings us to the next point.
The rise of right-wing parties
The Guardian noted that “Cameron might never have called the referendum had it not been for the rise and rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip.” This is of course a frightening prospect. Why should a person who does not even have a seat in Parliament get to dictate the future of the country? Surely this is contrary to the idea of Parliamentary Democracy. Arguably, Farage and Ukip have a strong grip on the electorate in spite of doing poorly in the polls. This, I argue, is achieved through two means. First, the extensive media coverage they both receive, Farage in particular, who often makes outrageous statements, such as suggesting that people with HIV should not be allowed to enter the UK. Second, the ability of Farage and Ukip to engage those who are disillusioned with mainstream politics. It seems that we happen to have politicians in Singapore who embody similar characteristics.
The age divide and how voter turnout does matter
Polls have shown that 73 per cent of those aged between 18-29 want to remain in the EU, while 63 per cent of those aged over 60 want to leave. There is therefore a huge generational divide when it comes to the EU issue. This of course raises an interesting question: is it correct for the older generation to make commitments which bind the younger generation when these commitments will, given their age, inevitably affect the younger generation for a longer period of time than the older generation? This is an issue that applies to any democracy, and any government policy, especially government spending.
In addition, it happens to be the case that older people are more likely to vote – this meant that the leave campaign, which relies on older voters, had an advantage from the start.
In Singapore, voting is compulsory. Hence, the turnout for our General Elections are exceedingly high. In the 2015 General Election, for example, the voter turnout was 93.56%. In most countries, however, voter turnouts are much lower. This EU referendum saw the highest voter turnout in the United Kingdom’s history – 72%. Arguably, larger voter turnouts grant more legitimacy to the election results, and ensures that generational divides do not skew the outcome of the election.
Separationism and the Scottish Nationalists’ gambit
Scottish independence is on the horizon, and this is due to the shrewdness of the Scottish nationalists during this referendum. I had the luxury of speaking to Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and leader of the “out” campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum during his visit to the Oxford Union a few weeks ago to debate the EU referendum. My friends and I were puzzled by his commitment to the “Remain” campaign. It was clear by then that Brexit would greatly boost the Scottish independence movement. Wouldn’t it be in his interest that Britain leaves the EU? When asked whether he was being hypocritical in campaigning against an “independent Britain” when not too long ago he was campaigning for an independent Scotland, he simply affirmed the commitment of the Scottish nation to the European project.
Now, everything seems clear. While Britain as a whole voted to leave, Scotland voted to remain by an overwhelming majority – 62%, with every single electoral division voting to remain. This means if Britain leaves the EU, it would be taking Scotland along with it against its will. As SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon noted, “Scotland sees its future as part of the EU”. Two nights ago, that statement would not contradict Scotland’s position as part of Britain. Today, Scotland in the EU means Scotland out of Britain. It is clear now that the Scottish remain campaign was a nationalist gambit. Brexit would not secure Scottish independence if the Scots also voted to leave the EU. In order to secure independence, the nationalist movement had to show that the Scots envisage a different future for themselves and hence, a continued partnership with Britain was no longer tenable – EU membership is one way of doing so. The Scottish remain campaign had to both encourage Scotland to vote remain, and also hope that Britain as a whole votes leave. The gambit paid off, and it would be surprising if a second Scottish referendum is not called in the near future.
Surely separationism is not an issue in Singapore. However, if there is anything to be learnt from this though, is that politicians are shrewd, and things are not always what they appear to be.