Most pundits expect that in little more than 130 days millions of people in the UK will be asked to make a few (apparently) innocuous choices. First to take the trouble to think seriously for a moment about an issue of which they will feel simultaneously, and paradoxically, ill-informed and very bored. Second to take the trouble to go to a designated ballot box near where they live or, possibly, work. Third to put an X in one of two small boxes marked either yes or no. Simple really: a few uncomplicated choices leading to a stated preference, and no more than a few minutes deviation for most of us from our normal day. What could be easier?
Well, not bothering to vote for one. But let’s assume, optimistically, that more than 50 % of those registered to vote turn out. The aggregate of those millions of votes will provide the answer to one of the most important questions placed before the British electorate in decades: should Britain stay in or leave the European Union?
The consequences, if the answer is no, could hardly be more dramatic; and not just for the UK. A vote for Brexit would shake the foundations of Europe. It would rock already highly volatile world markets. It would probably require a change of Prime Minister. Some suggest it could precipitate a general election. Britain’s place in the world would have to be renegotiated, certainly in terms of its trade relations. It would surely lead to Britain becoming further isolated from mainland Europe and increasingly insular and unsure of itself. We would wake up with an almighty hangover.
Far from settling present uncertainties it would greatly exacerbate them. In terms of our relationship with Europe and the world it be back to square one: where on earth do we go from here? Because one thing is clear – so little preparation has been made for the referendum itself (everyone knew more or less where they stood in respect of the Scottish referendum some two years ahead of time) it is a sure fire bet that there has been little or no real preparation for a no vote. And, to be fair, nor should there be. That would be to pre-empt the outcome. Perforce that thinking must postdate a no vote, if that is what we get.
Now avoiding dramatic consequences is not the only reason for voting to stay in. But it is perfectly reasonable to point out that we must all think very, very carefully about marking the ballot in a way that helps to precipitate almost unimaginable consequences. Deep dissatisfaction with the way the European Union operates is not, of course, synonymous with a desire to exit. The Prime Minister is gambling on that realisation to take him, and the unimaginatively named “Remain” campaign, over the line.
I mean no disrespect to the Prime Minister in suggesting that it is a gamble. He knows that himself, and he knew it when he decided, after much equivocation, to promise a referendum before the end of 2017 in his Bloomberg speech way back in January 2013. It was a daring throw of the political dice designed to keep the Conservative Party united, and focussed to win, in the run up to the 2015 General Election. It, and a number of other successful electoral strategies, including exploiting English voter irritation at the emotional trauma inflicted by the Scottish in the run up to their referendum, paid off handsomely.
But now, if anything, the stakes are even higher, and the heat in the room is rising, though the Prime Minister claims he has his hands firmly on the UK and EU thermostats. Will the EU give the Prime Minister what he wants, or enough at least, to cry victory in the so-called renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU (bizarrely referred to by the BBC political editor recently as Britain’s “link to the EU”!)? Will the migrant crisis engulfing Europe skew the debate, and voting intentions, in such a way as to jeopardise the Prime Minister’s (and my) desired outcome? Will the widespread apathy (the exact opposite of the electrifying atmosphere that surrounded the Scottish referendum) that appears more than likely, hand one side or the other serendipitous advantage?
I am convinced that in politics, as in other walks of life, you have to be lucky, as well as talented, to succeed. To which supplement the adage that you have to make your own luck. Since becoming leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron has had his share of luck, and deserves some credit, at least, because much of it has been the consequence of bold decision-making.
The result of the forthcoming referendum is crucial to all our lives, and many others besides. We cannot predict the precise consequences of either a yes, or a no vote. But we can be sure that a no vote would have huge consequences, most of which are at present largely unexplored. The European Union will still be there the day after our vote, and will continue to exist for a good while to come, whatever the outcome. We on the other hand face a dramatic change of direction in our national life if we vote to leave.
Seasoned politicians understand the need from time to time to take a calculated risk and roll the dice. When they do, they know their future may depend on the outcome. But usually it is only their future. There is always someone else ready to step into their shoes. The stakes in this referendum are far higher and few of us are well placed to calculate the risks of the so-called “brave new world” of Brexit. In the circumstances, and however cross we feel with politicians for failing to help us make a more informed choice; however tempting it is just to roll the dice, we have a duty to make the more responsible choice, as we see it, and not simply the more daring. It won’t be just our futures affected, but the futures of millions.
That isn’t a plea to vote to stay. It’s a plea first to vote, and second to vote responsibly. Because this referendum really does matter. It isn’t by any stretch just an innocuous choice.
About the author
Tim Livesey is a former diplomat. He was a senior adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy O’Connor. Until recently he was Chief of Staff to the leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband MP