Is the Leave campaign Eurosceptic?

Simon Usherwood

For scholars of Euroscepticism, this is an exciting time. We have a member state holding a referendum on its membership of the European Union and the chances of that state leaving are non-negligible. For a phenomenon that has had little to show for its roughly quarter-century of existence, this is a remarkable turn of events.

And yet it poses a number of fundamental questions about our understanding of Euroscepticism. For all the work that has been done on both sides of the Atlantic, we have no clear or unequivocal grasp of how this has come to pass, nor even what ‘Euroscepticism’ consists of. Typologies abound, and represent where we have made most progress, but even these frustrate as much as they illuminate.

These difficulties have become ever more obvious as the British referendum has progressed from an idea on the fringes of political debate to the centrepiece of this government’s policy agenda. We can see this by considering the title of this post: is the Leave campaign Eurosceptic?

At one level, this is axiomatically true: to actively campaign for one’s member state to leave the EU is, by definition, to be a Eurosceptic. Szczerbiak and Taggart’s model of Hard/Soft Euroscepticism, the most commonly-used in analyses, is differentiated precisely by the desire to exit the system (or to demand such changes as to render membership impossible). Until a few years ago, hard positions were very rare, certainly outside the UK, to the extent that one of the challenges levelled at the model was that it did not differentiate among the soft positions.

Let’s consider that for a moment. Today in the UK we have a party political system where the only party with representation in the House of Commons or the European Parliament that support exit as official party policy is the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Greens, and the other Northern Irish parties all support membership, while the Conservatives occupy an ambiguous position whereby party members are free to campaign however they feel fit, but the Tory government has a policy of supporting membership. Only this last point has changed since the early 1990s, and even then a quick trip down memory lane to John Major’s ‘bastards’ will remind us that Tory party discipline on this issue has been problematic for a very long time.

At the level of public opinion, it’s equally hard to discern an obvious movement, except the big spike in favour of membership over the past three years. While that has closed again since the referendum campaign has begun, it is still important to observe that while the public has never been wildly enthusiastic about membership, it has also never been wildly opposed.

Finally, among the print media, the pattern of Eurosceptic comment has also been broadly stable since the 1990s, with the Murdoch press, Mail group and Express ranged against the FT, Guardian and Independent (all niche publications in their different ways), with the Telegraph tacking alongside shifting Tory policy. If anything, the referendum campaign has seen the Eurosceptic titles providing more content for pro-membership pieces, suggesting that their support for Leave might not necessarily taken as read.

In sum, the UK looks on a number of metrics much like it did twenty years ago. Which brings us back to our main question: if the things we’d normally look to haven’t changed, then can we claim that this is Euroscepticism at work?

Clearly, a large part of what we see is political opportunism at work. The opportunities afforded by the referendum to promote one’s individual or group agenda to a wider public are considerable, so it becomes a lightning rod for political action. Witness here the extensive debate around former Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to campaign for Leave, despite a political (and publication) history that suggests a much more pragmatic and accommodating view of the EU: this appears to have been set against the potential boost it would provide for his securing of the Tory party leadership, to which he would seem to be heir-apparent should David Cameron be defeated in June. As it goes for Johnson, so it also goes for some of the others in the Leave camp.

But the use of the European issue as a political tool is also part of the Sussex school approach: it differentiates parties and taps into a centre-periphery dynamic. But this is itself problematic when it appears that a key driver for the shift has been pressure from Tory backbenchers on a Tory prime minister since 2010: if anything, the failure to win a clear majority then was a motivating factor in encouraging those MPs to squeeze Cameron into a crabwise move to making his 2013 Bloomberg promise to hold the referendum. Together with the ambivalence of the Labour leadership (or, more specifically, Jeremy Corbyn) to the campaign, we have to ask whether it is not necessary to revisit our models, to take account of what happens when Euroscepticism becomes pervasive in a political system.

And there’s a further issue. Having worked for many years on the British Eurosceptic movement, one of the most enduring and puzzling features of it for me has been the depth and extent of intra-movement fighting, where matters of true intention, methods and outcomes have provoked bitter contests. Even today, we find substantial sections of the movement that doubt the integrity or seriousness of Vote Leave (the lead campaign group), as well as the absence of a clear plan for post-membership relations with the EU. Suspicions abound that a vote to Leave would actually just be cover to frighten the public into a second vote to reverse the decision, with the many Tories in Vote Leave acting as a fifth column. The boundary between legitimate concern and conspiracy theory is often very hard to discern.

Whatever we might think about all of this, it does raise the definitional issue: if ‘Eurosceptics’ don’t recognise themselves or other ‘Eurosceptics’ as such, then how meaningful is it to apply the label to them? Indeed, one of the most striking facets of the referendum campaign so far has been the way in which the ‘traditional’ actors of the Eurosceptic movement have not taken centre-stage in the Leave camp, which has been populated instead by figures from political parties that don’t have a policy of withdrawal, or by non-partisan individuals who have not previously been very active in challenging membership. Even the strongest traditional Eurosceptic figure, Nigel Farage, has been placed to one side by the structure of the campaign, just as UKIP has not been the motor of campaigning that many imagined it would be.

In summary, we have a referendum on an issue that is classically ’Eurosceptic’, but where the pattern of conditions has not radically changed from previous years, where the main activists for Leave are not ones who are drawn from the pre-existing Eurosceptic movement, and where that movement is divided about the purpose and intention of the official Leave campaign. All of which invites us to revisit our models and consider whether we are not now in a different stage of affairs.

In particular, it appears that whereas we have tended to treat Euroscepticism as a heterodox and marginal position it can now be considered to be something much more pervasive. In such conditions, the drivers, the manifestation and the impact of Euroscepticism are potentially much changed. All of the long-standing issues about definition remain, not least the question of whether there is any point in talking about Euroscepticism as a coherent object. Casting our eyes from the Dutch referendum, to Greek austerity riots, to Hungarian ‘anti-democracy’ to German concerns about supporting weak Eurozone member states, the range and variety of Euroscepticism has grown only broader than before. Its scale is now such that it challenges the basics of European integration, from free movement to solidarity, to the whole notion of membership itself.

If Euroscepticism is changing, then so too must our efforts to understand and model it.

Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and currently a Senior Fellow in the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme.

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