There will be some people reading this for whom the EU referendum is the moment they been waiting for, and who have been following every detail of the campaign with fascination. But I suspect they will be overwhelmingly outnumbered by the majority, for whom June 23 cannot come soon enough, and for whom the campaign has become a tit-for-tat turn-off.
I cannot remember a campaign that has been so cavalier in its use of facts, and I have to say that most of the misbehaviour has been on the Vote Leave side, I hope it is a one-off but it may be the shape of things to come. The kind of politics that helped Donald Trump to the Republican nomination in America may be becoming universal.
Has anything good come out of this referendum campaign? I wrote last month about the impact that uncertainty ahead of the vote has had on the economy. Markit, which produces the monthly purchasing managers’ surveys, says a third of businesses across the manufacturing, construction and service sectors report that Brexit fears have a had a detrimental effect on activity in recent months. The hope is that this just reflects a postponement of sales and deals. The fear is that at least some of it is gone permanently.
Many in business would thus have preferred not to have this referendum. I suspect that is true of many voters too. Until people realised they had a vote on it (many still do not realise), Europe was not high on the list of popular concerns. EU membership was just a fact of life. If we were to move from that to a vote to leave, it would be a pretty remarkable change, though it is perfectly possible. It is also the case that, as low turnout figures in European parliament elections keep demonstrating, people are not terribly engaged in the EU sovereignty issue.
As one illustration, just over a year ago I was asked to chair a discussion on the EU, timed to coincide with the publication of a new book on Europe. It was not a huge venue – a central London bookshop – but, despite a lot of publicity, had to be cancelled for lack of interest. Britain’s general election campaign, which was happening at the same time, was a bigger draw.
So has any good come out of all this? It has, I think, made us think more about the EU, and what we get out of it. While I believe the benefits of being in the EU – the single market, our high levels of foreign direct investment, etc – far outweigh the costs, the campaign has demonstrated that not everybody sees these things the same way. On immigration in particular, the economic benefits are for many voters more than outweighed by the social consequences. Even though the employment rate among UK-born people has never been higher, the perception is that EU workers take the jobs of Britons, as well as putting pressure on housing and public services. We need to learn from that, and that what works for the economy does not necessarily work for everybody in it. People in large swathes of the country feel the system lets them down.
That relates to a wider point, which is what the referendum has revealed about attitudes to business, particularly big business. People reading this will have different views on the in-out question but business surveys have shown that a clear balance of firms large and small is in favour of continued EU membership. What is good for business is normally good for the country.
Many voters, however, do not see it that way. Businesses are seen as favouring membership because it gives them access to a supply of cheap labour. When banks warn that leaving would mean jobs being shifted to the rest of Europe, some voters say “good riddance”. We know we are living in a time in which anti-establishment views are in vogue. It is also clear that anti-business attitudes are quite popular.