Polarisation around the issue of immigration makes this #EURef a ‘Plebiscite to Nowhere’…

The Sunday Telegraph/Adam Smith Institute YouGov poll is by far the most revealing poll about the EU so far. It’s not the slender lead for Brexit that’s the distinguishing features but the dilemma it reveals at the very heart of the Referendum question.  

Here’s some the key detail:


In essence a vote for Brexit speeds us on to a second question of what kind of Brexit (whatever the protests from those who claim otherwise this vital question was deliberately left unresolved). Now we’re getting that old familiar Sinn Fein saw Brexit is a process not an event from some unionist quarters who previously argued such a scenario was an affront to democracy. 

In its desperation to get ahead of Remain, Leave (it’s roughly neck and neck right now) has come  very close to making immigration the whole point of this referendum. You can see the effect of this in the very telling details of this survey:


It’s clear that some few Leave voters believe they can have both EU free trade and stop immigration, but it is very few. Most would prefer to cut all ties with Europe just to stop Immigration dead. The gross demagogic simplification of blaming a failing NHS on immigrants means that any Norwegian style compromise runs entirely against these hyped up expectations. 

It is a red herring that appears to have become the main dish on Leave’s menu. As Ben Murphy points out… 

We must “control our borders” they say, but this is an aspiration; not a policy in itself. The main factor preventing reductions in immigration is the lack of political will. There is plenty that we could do now to bring about meaningful reductions; abolishing free movement is not a cure-all remedy; it is nothing more than an elixir.

And as Rick notes…

“Migration is not a bug, it’s a feature. An international economy like Britain’s, containing one of the world’s major global cities, is bound to attract a lot of migrants. When compared to the size of its population, though, the UK’s migration flows are not especially high. They are similar to other large European economies and some way lower than those of Australia and Canada, the countries whose immigration systems the Leave campaigners say they want us to adopt.”

Yet, having built an appetite for it (with little if any focused or smart opposition from Remain it should be said), a vote for Brexit would likely trigger a second prolonged and heated debate on what kind of Brexit is actually on offer: making this poll little more than a ‘Plebiscite to Nowhere’. 

See item one in Paul Evans’ magnificent 101 on the shortcomings of referendums:

Referendums are often a framing exercise. We often don’t want either of the options we’re being asked to adopt, preferring one that isn’t on the ballot. Governments decide what the question is going to be anyway, and if they don’t like the answer that they get back, it can always become a never-end-um (see Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty).

Given the polarisation shown here, a second or even a third poll might be deemed necessary: raising the possibility that having looked at the actual choices on offer, of, rather lamely, choosing to retain the UK’s original EU membership. 

If nothing else it demonstrates a deep illiteracy amongst the UK’s elected elites when it comes to wielding one of the crudest instruments in the direct democracy arsenal (See Quintin Oliver’s guide to winning a Scottish Referendum). 

No one in Ireland calls one willingly, and when they do (like the marriage equality amendment to the Constitution) a lot of time research is spent of getting it right long before the starter pistol is fired. Nice and Lisbon were forced upon a government of the day which would have preferred to to have faced one.

At its most powerful point in the polls it’s also becoming clear that when it comes to future Leave across the board is more incline to say it doesn’t know what will follow an Out vote rather than allowing itself to have to explain why there’s no viable trade off between trade and immigration in the terms it needs to present to win this referendum.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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