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The UK’s Innate Conservatism will Prevent an EU Exit


The United Kingdom’s referendum on continued membership of the European Union arrives next month and voters could choose to make Britain the first European state to leave the EU.

While some members might breathe a secret sigh of relief at the departure of the biggest member of the union’s awkward squad, a vote for Brexit would be a genuine leap into the dark for Britain and for Europe. Only Greenland and Algeria have ever left the-then European Economic Community (EEC); Algeria upon independence in 1962 and Greenland after a referendum on exiting in 1982. Neither case quite parallels the situation Britain finds itself in.

Fortunately for the immediate future of the EU, and probably for the British economy, this is not going to happen—precisely because the results are so unpredictable. If there is one pattern which comes out clearly from a glance back across the referendums of post-war Britain, it is the habit of British voters to draw right up to the line of irrevocable change and then to draw back from it.

It is not that the British will not innovate with different forms of political arrangements. Underneath its monarchy and unwritten constitution, the country has experimented with radical centralization under Thatcherism in the 1980s, various forms of devolution in the 1990s, and the growing localization of power to city authorities under both Labour and Conservative governments—see the high profile of former London Mayor Boris Johnson in the European debate.

But while the British are prepared to experiment with their political and economic system, sudden, drastic changes are not welcomed. This mindset covers alterations to what has already been built but also to attempts to return to earlier arrangements. The UK electorate prefers a gradualist approach to change in either direction. This attitude can be seen in the conflicting answers the UK has given to proposed changes in political and economic arrangements in the recent past.

The UK was not a founding member of the Treaty of Rome and did not try to join the EEC until 1963. Equally it has stayed out of the single currency since the experiment was launched, and the possibility of joining the eurozone is probably now delayed by several decades in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Voters in Scotland have returned a nationalist government to power three times in a row, but turned down the chance to split from the rest of the UK when offered it in a referendum last year. The thought of severing ties so abruptly was too much for the Scots, even if the Union itself is largely unloved.

Were there an option for a more autonomous form of membership available, there is every chance that Eurosceptic British voters—of whom there are many—might plump for the looser form of association with other European states. Centuries of balancing between different coalitions of Europeans makes Britain a nation which likes to leave all of its options open in its foreign affairs. But this alternative has been firmly rejected by the other EU states because, in practice, creating exceptions on conditions for membership would be a recipe for chaos.

This conservative (with a small ‘c’) British attitude favors defenders of the UK’s continued membership in Europe—when presented with a straight in/out choice the average British voter will probably plump for the disagreeable status quo over the exciting but experimental unknown.

Unless a sufficient minority of heavily motivated Eurosceptics head to the polls while a complacent majority of pro-Europeans stays at home, the ‘out’ campaign will find itself outvoted at the polling stations by ‘muddlers’; the voters who complain about the EU but still expect their politicians to carry on trying to get the best deal for Britain from within the union as best they can.

To this end the UK government has been mobilizing every resource at its disposal, begging allies from President Obama to institutions like the IMF to spell out to the British population some of the likely political and economic consequences of Brexit. Europe is not even a primary concern to many voters, to whom issues like managing the National Health Service, controlling immigration and reducing the cost of living all seem more urgent.

In short, without a clear precedent to follow, and with the seeming benefits outweighed by the potential losses, which would come on top of almost ten years of austerity in Britain, the European referendum is already won by the ‘in’ campaign—they just have to get their supporters to go and vote.



Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson is a freelance international relations analyst whose work has appeared in the Diplomat, the International Security Network, Geopolitical Monitor, The Independent and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and has lived in China for three years and is presently based in London.