LONDON DISPATCH: On Brexit and the Canadian comparison

By June 22, 2016Politics, Uncategorized

The mood here in London is tense. To Remain or Leave the European Union is the question, and if anyone still hasn’t made up their mind, I can’t find them.

“I’m voting to leave the corrupt, incompetent and hopelessly bureaucratic EU,” one friend told me.

“I’m supporting Leave, and everybody I know is too,” a Cockney-accented cabbie said matter-of-factly.

Another friend — not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve (excuse the pun) — wore an “I’m In!” sticker on his jacket lapel to display his pro-EU support.

The uneasy relationship between Britain and the EU will finally be tested tomorrow after a bitter referendum campaign that hit its crescendo last week with the horrific murder of pro-EU MP Jo Cox.

It was a campaign that saw the zany ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, compare the EU to Nazi Germany, and washed up rocker Bob Geldof hurl invective at prominent Leave proponent Nigel Farage as they floated down the Thames on fishing boats.

The Brexit campaign has captivated international news watchers and many Canadians.

The dynamic in this battle has taken on a similar feel to the U.S. presidential race, with many Britons supporting Leave — like Americans backing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — feeling alienated, disenfranchised and that the system no longer works for them.

There have also been comparisons between this campaign and the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referendums.

There’s some truth to that. Much like Britain in relation to the larger EU, in Quebec, nationalistic rhetoric has always been part of the political narrative with English Canada. In 1995, Quebec sovereignists argued that separation would lead to long term prosperity, and that taking complete control of political decisions would be the best option for the people.

Immigration is another similarity between the two campaigns: opposition to the free flow of European passport holders fuels some Leave supporters; in 1995, then-Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed the referendum loss on “money and the ethnic vote”.

There have also been similarities in the way the campaigns have been run. Like Quebec federalists, the Remain team has learned how difficult it is to defend things as they are — the stable status quo — against aspirational claims of what could be — the possibilities of a hypothetical, unknown tomorrow. Cold logic and reason doesn’t win over people as easily as raw emotion.

There is a very important historical difference, however. The United Kingdom has been around since 1801, Great Britain since 1707, and each constituent jurisdiction for over a thousand years. Britain joined the European Community 41 years ago, decades after the original treaty was signed by other countries, making it a participant and not a founder of the union.

Quebec, on the other hand, was an equal founder of Canada long before confederation was even formalized in 1867. It helped determine the division of powers in the country during constitutional negotiations and has a great deal of autonomy over linguistic, educational and other matters. Quebec’s culture is as fundamental to the Canadian experience as that of any other province.

Canada without Quebec would not be Canada. However, the EU without Britain would continue to exist as Europe.

The problem for Remain, as we’ve seen in the U.S., is that the zeitgeist in the west right now is vehemently — even viscerally — anti-establishment. So it doesn’t help that Britain’s political elite and big businesses are heavily in favour of remaining in the EU. Populism is the flavour of the year.

At this point, no matter the result, this plebiscite will go down as an ugly campaign, and most likely as Prime Minister David Cameron’s Waterloo. He campaigned on a referendum in the 2015 election campaign to punt a tricky issue down the road and to appease the Eurosceptics in his caucus. It was a grave political miscalculation that may cost him his career.

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