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Where battle will be joined in EU vote

Article by Richard Gowan

September 15, 2006

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An amalgamation of recent statistics suggests that the type of Briton most likely to be strongly opposed to the EU is a woman in her later fifties or early sixties. She is lower-middle class, and lives in the Midlands. The nemesis of Brussels does not look like a hooligan, but a grandmother.

Profiles built on statistics can be as misleading as any other stereotype. But Tony Blair’s decision to hold a referendum on the Constitution, combined with the success of anti-EU candidates in June’s European elections, has meant that British attitudes to Europe must now go under the microscope.

In the run-up to the constitutional referendum, pollsters and analysts will make good money interpreting the nation’s moods. Yet sufficient data already exists to draw broad conclusions about how the campaign may develop – and they make mildly cheerful reading for pro-Europeans.

Crucially, polling does not support the tabloids’ claim that Britain is a fundamentally anti-European country. Research conducted by the ICM agency in March 2004 analysed attitudes to Europe in terms of age, gender, region and class. It found that all groups were strongly suspicious of the (then unfinalised) Constitution. Two-thirds of respondents were opposed to it.

But when asked whether they would like Britain to leave the EU completely, only a third agreed. Just over half were actively in favour of continued membership.

Distinct differences emerged between types of voter on this issue. Some were predictable. The young display a higher degree of support for membership than their elders. Women, traditionally more conservative than men, are less pro-European too. But more intriguing divisions emerge when responses are broken down by class and region.

Residual Marxists will not be surprised to learn that the EU is a class issue. Whereas nearly two-thirds of those in the upper and upper-middle classes are in favour of continued British membership of the Union, only 42% of what are technically known as “C2s” (the skilled working class) share this commitment.

This Euroscepticism cannot be reduced to simple isolationism. The majority of C2s have holidayed abroad in recent years, and have regular access to the internet. It is unlikely that they are unaware that the EU has an important role to play in defending their social rights. Separate polling by MORI has demonstrated that a majority of the British public is conscious of Brussels’ significance to their working hours and conditions.

However, it is probable that they doubt that the EU has a positive role to play in making them better off. Mistrust of Europe’s economic influence is high in all classes, in spite of the efforts of both the government and independent organisations such as Britain in Europe to underline its advantages. This mistrust is at its highest among C2s.

If pro-Europeans are to make their case successfully, they must find new ways of presenting its economic benefits to ordinary voters. A comparison of various regions’ views of the EU underlines the importance of this message: it is particularly popular in Wales and the South-West, which have benefited markedly from European funds. However, those who believe that the EU is a natural ally of Britain’s Celtic periphery will be disappointed: Euroscepticism remains strong in Scotland.

In spite of these variations, the British average of 51%:36% support for EU membership marks the nation out as moderately pro-European rather than fiercely Eurosceptic. Public suspicion of the Constitution is rooted more in doubts over its contents than the idea of Europe per se. Nor are they easily swayed by the rabid anti-European voices of the United Kingdom Independence Party.

While the UKIP scored nearly three million votes in this year’s European Parliament elections, it had very little impact on the views of the public as a whole. An ICM poll on attitudes conducted when the party was at its height showed no swing against the Constitution – if anything, it suggested a tiny (1%) shift in favour of the document.

This suggests that the British electorate are willing to be reasonable on Europe. But it does not mean that they are interested by it. While the political classes were getting excited over Blair’s spring referendum U-turn, polls found that only 9% of voters thought Europe to be the most important issue facing the UK. This group is thought to consist largely of worried pro-Europeans rather than diehard Europhobes.

If, as is now threatened, the constitutional referendum is two years off, it is unlikely that the public will follow it closely. The gaggle of UKIP-supporting minor celebrities that dominated the run-up to the European elections in June had become almost invisible in the media by the end of the month. Joan Collins’ career is back on hold.

Such apathy allows pro-Europeans a quiet life. But it is problematic in that, to win on the Constitution, they must make the public understand why the treaty is essential to the good functioning of the sort of moderate EU most Britons want to live in. The gap must be closed between those that back the Constitution and those who want to stay in the EU.

Achieving this must involve work at the grass-roots level in response to the differences between voters noted above. In recent years, pro-Europeans have lost a series of referendums around the continent because they did not engage in such work. Norway’s 1994 effort to enter the EU was blocked because Eurosceptics made good use of local and regional differences to outmanoeuvre pro-European politicians in Oslo. A similar grass-roots effort kept Denmark out of the Eurozone.

However, it is equally crucial that pro-Europeans should not only address such differences but aim to overcome them. Regional differences played little part in the final result of the 1975 referendum on British membership of the Common Market, resoundingly won by pro-Europeans after a 22% swing away from their opponents in the six months before polling day. Only the Highlands and Islands of Scotland voted on a clearly parochial basis, with Orkney and the Shetlands delivering anti-Market majorities contrary to the national trend.

The decisive factor in 1975 was, in fact, none of the social divisions mentioned so far. They were all overwhelmed by party loyalty, even though the contest was supposedly a non-party affair. With the Tories and Liberal leaderships solidly in favour of Europe, the referendum “campaign” was reduced to in-fighting within Labour. With the pro-market Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey winning that struggle, the national result was assured.

Moreover, the campaign demonstrated that public apathy toward Europe could be overcome. Less than six months before the referendum, a Gallup poll found that 1% of Britons rated Europe as the most important issue facing the UK. By the month of the poll, public interest in the result was high, and the eventual turnout was 65%.

The key question for the next referendum may thus not be about divisions between classes and areas, but about how far the opposed camps can each cohere. Two scenarios are imaginable, both related to the outcome of the expected May 2005 general election.

In the best-case scenario for pro-Europeans, Tony Blair would win that election by a clear majority (perhaps one hundred Commons seats) allowing him or his anointed successor to take on a newly-fractured Tory party. While pro-European Conservatives such as Kenneth Clarke would feel little need to toe their party line, the Tories’ weakness would open up more political space for the UKIP. Differences between the two parties would hamper the anti-European message from the Right. The Constitution would be won.

In the worst-case scenario (barring the still unlikely eventuality of a Conservative victory), Blair might win by a narrow margin, giving the Tories an incentive to hang together in hope of a victory at the next election. With Labour entering a period similar to the last years of John Major, it would be the pro-European camp that fractured. Anti-European figures in labour such as Tony Benn (a key opponent of the Common Market in 1975) would come to the fore. With the UKIP redundant, the more mainstream opponents of the Constitution would have the upper hand.

Even in the best case, the campaign would not be as simple as that of 1975. Then, the entire press bar the Communist Morning Star was in favour of staying in the Common Market. Nor did there seem to be a serious alternative to membership: Commonwealth premiers and US president Gerald Ford all advocated a “yes” vote to Europe.

This time round, the press will not be so favourable to pro-Europeans, and the Tories may be able to say that there remains a transatlantic alternative to European solidarity. Nonetheless, if Labour maintains coherence, it clearly has a well of pro-European public opinion to tap. To date, the party’s leaders have been somewhat coy in their efforts to do so. Having announced the referendum so as to pre-empt argument prior to European elections, the prime minister and his supporters have not been consistent in selling the Constitution.

How long they can continue to prevaricate is unclear. They may be inclined to do so in the belief that Europe remains unsellable. But if the polls are correct, an act of concentrated political will should mean that a few sixty-year olds in the Midlands will be unhappy the morning after the referendum.

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