There is something decidedly British about boarding a low ceiling carriage on the London Tube or a narrow Intercity train. Much of the infrastructure dates back to an era when Britain was a global empire and a leading economic and scientific powerhouse.
My visit to London this early spring, just 100 days ahead of the June 23 referendum on European Union membership, offers fascinating insights into a country with much to offer and gaps to mind – not just when boarding and leaving a train.
Today I am taking the Jubilee line. This is the newest addition to the world’s oldest (153 years) and Europe’s longest (402 km) underground system. It opened just a few years after a first British ballot on EU membership on June 5, 1975, when 67% of voters decided to stay.
The Jubilee line connects two very different boroughs of the metropolis of ten million residents: rural-leaning Havering in the east and high-density Lambeth in the heart of the city, south of the River Thames.
While Havering is mainly populated by white elderly working-class couples in single homes, multi-cultural Lambeth is probably one of the most globalised places on earth, with a young and very well-educated population.
Just a 30-minute tube ride apart, these two districts also symbolise two opposing positions on the Brexit referendum. According to a new poll conducted by the YouGov Institute, the 240,000 citizens of Havering are Britain’s most eurosceptic. Meanwhile, Lambeth residents are among the country’s top four Europhile groups of citizens. It is here in Lambeth, in the heart of booming London, where I find the non-descript campaign office of the people trying to convince a majority of the voters to say LEAVE on June 23.
”We are just trying, as it is not yet clear if we will become the designated campaign organisation for this referendum or not,” says Alex Hickman, the young coordinator of the business-orientated eurosceptics who have just sent in their application to the UK Electoral Commission. ”If we do not get the designation, this organisation will collapse immediately,” Hickman explains.
The Electoral Commission (established in the aftermath to the 1975 vote on Europe) is the independent UK authority designated to run, conduct, educate and control most elections and votes in Britain at the national and regional level.
It gets heavily involved with every aspect of the decision-making process, and even regulates and controls all financial aspects of an election or referendum.
When it comes to the Brexit, the Electoral Commission – which resides in another grey office building just north of the Thames – is about to decide which groups on each sides of the debate will get the unique official designation to be the so-called ’lead campaigner’.
This means that one single organisation on each side will get around €1 million in public funds and will be allowed to spend as much as €10 million in the last 60 days up to the vote, which is the official campaign period. It is a tricky decision as political forces with very different values are trying to occupy one of the two camps.
As Damian Chalmers from the London School of Economics declared at a recent public meeting at the Royal Institution, they include those in favour of leaving the EU in order to ‘close down Britain’, while other Brexiters want to ‘open the country to the world’.
The event was organised by people2power-partners Zocalo Public Square and Democracy International in London.
Not just Scotland
As Britain struggles with its future position in Europe and the rest of the world, a vote to leave the EU on June 23 may trigger a number of other referendums.
Following a continuous devolution process since the 1970s in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and several northern regions, leading local politicians have called for new popular votes on independence should Britain leave the EU.
Well anticipated for decades, the administrative framework of the Brexit vote is exemplary and, as in 2014 in Scotland when 55.3% of the voters opted to remain in the UK (with a very high turnout of 85%), Brexit offers many great democratic opportunities. The next 100 days should primarily be seen as a major public debate involving and engaging the entire population, which creates better understanding across the country and a foundation for a more open society.
As in Scotland, the success of the Brexit referendum may not only be judged on the result, but on the mobilisation and empowerment of people usually not heard in the public debate.
Top down approach
However, Britain is not all about Scotland, which is a very modern democracy with proportional elections while the UK is organised into much less representative single-seat constituencies. Many of the lessons learned there have yet to reach the traditionalist brains of the Commons at Westminster.
In a monarchy deeply intertwined with mostly outdated and unwritten conventions, the many great features of the Brexit referendum process are unfortunately eclipsed by an extremely top-down approach shared by both main political parties, the Tories and Labour. Based on narrow intra-party interests, Prime Minister David Cameron has been unwilling to offer a more modern referendum law, which might include the right to vote for 16-year-olds, as in Scotland, or to allow for a longer campaign period up to polling day.
While the 2015 EU Referendum Act approved by parliament allows the popular vote to take place as late as autumn 2017, Cameron decided to hold the vote as soon as June 23 – offering an official campaign period of just 60 days starting on April 15. In addition, the June 23 vote has just consultative status, leaving the final say to parliament.
This is a major weakness of all British referendums. Together, this creates a framework with opportunities but also big risks, as the vote could be interpreted to be just a plebiscite about Cameron as the country’s political leader. Brexit is not just a question of leaving the EU or staying with Brussels. It is also about Britain’s ability to better ‘mind its gaps’.
Bruno Kaufmann is editor-in-chief at People2Power, where this article was published first.