Commentary: In febrile UK referendum, a brutal murder

(This piece has been updated to reflect news developments.)

Part of a flotilla of fishing vessels campaigning to leave the European Union sails under Westminster Bridge toward Parliament on the river Thames in London, June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Before news broke of the shocking killing of Parliament member Jo Cox, Britain’s vote on leaving the European Union was so tight that the results might have come down to the weather. Or perhaps how well England does in the Euro 2016 football tournament.

Even the Glastonbury music festival taking place the same week and pulling thousands of voters away from their constituency could, some believed, have been enough to swing it.

Now, the June 23 vote will take place against the backdrop of the murder of the 41-year-old lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party — a vocal supporter of Britain remaining in the European Union. Cox died in a gun and knife attack that, according to initial reports, at least, may have been politically motivated. Both “remain” and “leave” have suspended campaigns with immediate effect. What the consequences will be for next week’s vote is hard to say. It remains close — and in many respects, the atmosphere will now be more unpredictable than ever.

According to some early reports, the attacker shouted “Britain first” as he struck. For now, the predominant feeling remains simple shock. What turns out to have happened may yet affect the result, of course — but there is still a week until the vote and there will now be inevitable fears of further violence.

A spike in public sympathy — potentially coupled with already growing concern in some quarters about a tendency towards xenophobia and anti-migrant rhetoric amongst the “leave” campaign — could yet prompt an upsurge in support for EU membership. But that is far from a foregone conclusion.

That an issue so important could be determined so arbitrarily seems grimly fitting. The referendum and campaigns surrounding them have been a national embarrassment, at worst deliberately misleading on both sides. Indeed, if a vote was held right now on canceling the entire enterprise —essentially, a referendum on whether or not to have a referendum — it’s entirely possible the nation would vote to simply forget the whole thing. Opinion polls were already giving widely varying projections of which side will win — in many cases, the difference between the projected “remain” and “leave” votes has been within the margin of error.

The consensus has generally been that — probably with a very slim majority — the status quo will prevail. Several polls, however, show a last-minute increase in those who want to leave.

That’s where something as simple as football — or soccer, in the U.S. vernacular — was seen having an impact. There was genuine speculation in the corridors of power that England’s success in the opening stages of the tournament might bolster support for leaving the European Union.

According to a survey of self-identified football fans by bookmakers Coral, a majority already favored Brexit, but with 20 percent — higher than the national average — saying they had still to make up their minds.

For the frantic lobbying by both sides, all the supposedly scientific projections and evidence produced, for most in the country it is a gut decision at best. When asked in focus groups, British voters said they wanted more information to determine their decision.

The problem is that what they demanded — hard data on the outcome of either choice v did not truly exist, despite the best efforts of both campaigns to pretend otherwise. Yes, there were multiple predictions, some from very established organizations like the International Monetary Fund and leading think tanks. Truly accurately modeling how financial markets and other nations would really react, however, was always all but impossible.

So close was the vote — and so entrenched are most people’s viewpoints — that most informed analysts believed the outcome would come down to how many actually vote on the day. Those who want to leave the EU — mainly older voters, particularly outside major cities, pollsters say — are traditionally more likely to vote. Those who want to stay — often younger, including urban dwellers and ethnic minorities — was seen potentially not bothering to turn up.

That’s why there was such a massive government-backed effort to encourage registration — including extending the deadline by 24 hours after the website crashed on June 7. It’s also why the weather might yet still, particularly if rain makes some of those already lukewarm about the referendum feel that walking to a polling station isn’t worth the effort.

The rising political temperature, meanwhile, already had some commentators worrying about the potential for more serious political extremism and violence.

The “remain” camp comprises almost the entire political mainstream including Cameron, most of the opposition Labour Party as well as the leaders of minority Liberal Democrat, Green, Scottish Nationalist and all other major parties except the anti-Europe UK Independence Party. They have pushed hard on the economic impact of leaving, drawing heavily on projections that suggest a sharp slump in British currency, employment, housing and stock markets.

That’s not an argument they had necessarily won in the minds of the public. Two thirds of voters said they do not believe a Brexit would leave them poorer.

The “leave” campaign – like presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump – had certainly benefited from popular anti-establishment feelings and concerns over immigration. Cameron pledged to cut new arrivals to the UK during last year’s election campaign, but without any ability to limit migration from the EU, such a step is all but impossible.

The individuals leading the “leave” campaign, however, seem to themselves also its greatest weakness — an idiosyncratic collection of often eccentric right-wingers, exemplified by former London Mayor Boris Johnson and UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.

Had the attack been carried out by, for example, recently arrived migrant from Europe or the Middle East, it would possibly have added to their anti-immigration rhetoric. But that, for now, does not appear to be the case.

The problem is that both sides have undeniable points. The “remain” campaign is right to say that leaving the EU brings huge uncertainties. No one really knows what would replace the various agreements Britain would likely be tearing up. In the short term at least some of the resulting economic uncertainty would cost jobs and damage lives.

As I’ve written before, the world is already enough of a mess — particularly Europe — it’s hard to justify doing anything that could make matters worse.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that millions of ordinary British voters are fed up and want change. They are unconvinced by the arguments of political and business figures or even a much broader globalized metropolitan upper middle-class.

It’s easy to caricature such views as xenophobic and anti-foreigner — but the reality is nuanced. In many ways, the dramatically increased migration that has come with EU open borders has been positive. Foreign workers have been vital in keeping Britain’s welfare state running. They have helped London become once again one of the cultural and commercial centers of the planet. Many Britons, however, feel left behind — and worry what a decade of further such change might mean

The European Union has no shortage of flaws. Leaving it would give Britain the option of building its own migration policy in particular rather than doing it in concert with others — whatever that might turn out to mean. In doing so, it would restore a degree of democratic accountability. The question is whether the level of disruption Brexit would bring is worth it — or if the United Kingdom could achieve more by staying in and working together.

Neither side, however, has been willing to concede that the other might have points. Instead, they have ramped up the political temperature to heights barely seen in recent British history.

Britain has a terrible record in making informed decisions on Europe. There’s no question neither its politicians nor its voters really knew what they were getting when they voted to join the then European Common Market in 1975.

In the 1990s, both major political parties were committed to joining the euro single currency — something most of the country now thinks would have been a complete disaster. The reason they didn’t was because the financial markets sent the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Once Prime Minister Tony Blair took power five years later, disagreements between him and anti-euro finance minister Gordon Brown meant it never came back on the agenda.

The best we can hope is that Britain blunders in the right direction now. Hopefully, without any more bloodshed.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been an officer in the British Army Reserve. Follow Peter Apps on Twitter

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.