Is there a shy eurosceptic factor at play in the EU referendum?
What happened to all of the supposedly staunchly eurosceptic Conservative cabinet ministers – people like Sajid Javid and Rob Halfon – when it came time to nail their colours to the mast and declare their desire to leave the European Union?
Charles Moore has a theory:
Obviously one factor is that Tory MPs have found it convenient in recent years to adopt Eurosceptic protective colouring in their constituencies. But I think there is something deeper. The fear factor which may well win the referendum for Mr Cameron actually operates even more strongly on the elites than on the mass of the population. People who hold important jobs are much more worried than normal citizens about being considered ‘off the wall’. If they opt for ‘leave’, they will be interrogated fiercely by their peers about their decision. If they declare for ‘remain’, they will be left in peace. The EU is the biggest elite orthodoxy of the western world since we gave up our belief in imperialism. Most people within elites find it too tiring and dangerous to question the orthodoxy under which they have risen to the top.
Now, I have no time at all for those craven Conservative MPs who built their precious reputations and careers on a foundation of what turns out to be utterly fake euroscepticism. But neither can I deny the very real, socially oppressive aura that surrounds euroscepticism in some quarters, whereby it becomes very difficult for people to publicly express their eurosceptic opinions in certain context and company. And if one cannot excuse the shameless U-turning when it is committed by our elected representatives, we should perhaps be more understanding when ordinary members of the public falter.
So what are we dealing with here? It’s the same factor which makes otherwise confident, extroverted people drop their voices to a hushed and conspiratorial whisper when discussing their conservative political leanings in an elite (or creative/artistic) workplace, or makes a school teacher think twice before openly contradicting the biased, anti-Tory ranting of their colleagues.
But it is more than simply avoiding hassle. For many people, not only the elites, it is also a case of seeking to avoid very tangible real-world consequences of being known to hold unfashionable opinions – the threat of public ridicule, professional censure or even job loss, simply for committing thought-crime.
Maybe nobody will care if you fail to join in the joking with your colleagues when they laugh about Nigel Farage or mock those knuckle-dragging Little Englanders who want to pull up the drawbridge on Fortress Britain. But maybe they will notice, and maybe it might lead to an awkward question: “Wait a minute, you can’t seriously support those racists, can you? You’re having a laugh, right?” Far easier to just go along with the crowd. Why risk antagonising the boss, or the people you sit next to every day? Why risk that upcoming promotion? Better just stay silent.
And of course, this is exactly what happened last May. Ed Miliband and the Labour Party convinced themselves that they were heading for victory in the general election. They really, sincerely believed it (read Dan Hodges’ book “One Minute To Ten” to get a sense of just how fervently they believed it). But it was all nonsense, a great exercise in self-deception made possible by the fact that Labour activists had created such a stultifying aura of sanctimonious left-wingery and screeching Tory-hatred that anyone with a remotely conservative political leaning simply dropped out of the conversation and went silent. Silent, that is, until May 7 – at which time they marched to their polling station and delivered David Cameron back to 10 Downing Street.
Is there a chance that history might repeat itself now it comes to the EU referendum? It is certainly a possibility. There are many social settings – mostly where the social, academic or artistic elites live and work – where expressing a eurosceptic opinion or declaring one’s support for Brexit is tantamount to reading aloud from Mein Kampf in the town square. But conversely, there are no equivalent places or scenarios where one might reasonably expect to be actively persecuted for expressing pro-EU sentiments.
That alone speaks volumes. And while it may not excuse the despicable behaviour of some Conservative cabinet ministers who chose career advancement over eurosceptic principle, it would explain the reluctance of many people from certain professions or social groups to openly declare their euroscepticism.
As to how much of a chilling effect the establishment’s instinctive pro-EU instincts have on the polling and the wider referendum debate, we will likely not know until the votes are counted.
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