King’s Debate: In or Out? The EU Referendum

In or out: the EU referendum

What are the big questions facing the world today? How is King’s informing the discussion? In this new series, we ask members of the King’s community to dissect the issue.

By Alexander Garrett

The starting gun has been fired. On June 23rd, Britons will vote in a referendum to decide whether the UK will remain within the European Union. It’s a moment of historic significance, and one with implications for almost every aspect of our lives.

Right on time?

Is it any surprise that the referendum is taking place so early in this Parliament? David Cowling, the BBC’s editor of political research, says not: “After its election victory the Government wanted to clear the decks. What they could not afford was to have five years of internal strife, dissension and division.”

Charles Clarke, former Labour Home Secretary, agrees: “One of the big negatives has been the uncertainty about Britain’s position in the EU, which has economic and social consequences. The longer that goes on the worse it will be, so the sooner we get a decision the better.”

The rationale

But was it a sensible decision by David Cameron to promise a referendum? Clarke believes it was the right choice. “Since about 2008 I’ve supported the idea of a referendum because I felt this was a boil that needed to be lanced in British politics. I’ve always opposed other referenda – for example on EU constitutional changes. However, on the in or out it’s an existential question and I think there’s a good chance people will vote on the substance of the issue.”

Dame Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking and, until recently, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, disagrees, seeing the referendum as a miscalculation by the Prime Minister inspired by short-term motive of party management. “If you really wanted a referendum, have it on an issue the voters care about, like how we fund the health service,” she says.

Lord David Willetts, who served as Minister for Universities and Sciencein the previous Conservative-led coalition government, and now sits in the House of Lords, believes there is a fundamental question of national identity to be addressed. “If you think about the hopes of people when we joined the European Community in 1973, instead of a process where we’ve become more and more comfortable with our position, in the last 10 or 20 years we seem to have become more uncomfortable,” he says. “The referendum is one way to try and solve that and to stabilise the situation.”

But Cowling sees it purely as a matter of political expediency. “Europe has obsessed the British political class ever since we joined,” he says. “It’s come close to destroying both major political parties – first Labour in the late 1970s and early 1980s; now the Conservatives. But as far as the great British public is concerned, they don’t give a tuppenny damn.” In opinion polls where voters are asked unprompted to list the most important issues facing the UK, he says, Europe ranks a mere two per cent.

The issues

So is the electorate ready to make an informed choice, and what are the issues which will decide the referendum? David Cowling is pessimistic. “After 40 years of membership, what awareness is there of Europe, what it stands for and how it influences our lives? Utterly negligible for most people,” he laments. “The ‘In campaign’ will certainly tell a positive story, but overshadowing it will be the message ‘hang on to nurse for fear of something worse’. They’ll be drawing on fears and concerns about life outside EU.” He believes the impact of David Cameron’s ‘deal’ with the other 27 European leaders will be ‘negligible’.

Dame Margaret, meanwhile, believes the danger is that immigration will trump all other issues and become the pivotal one. “It’s very high on people’s agenda, and they will use the referendum to give their verdict on political parties’ inability to control immigration,” she says. “Certainly those arguing to remain will try to make it a debate about jobs, inward investment, and security – all those reasons why we’re in Europe. Whether that cuts through to people’s thinking when they make a decision, time will tell.”


None of our panel sees much benefit for the universities sector in Brexit. Lord Willetts, the former Universities Minister, says: “Potentially, leaving could be a very significant blow to our university and research community. We perform very well in terms of securing funding from the European Research Council. What matters, at least as much, is the partnerships, movement of people and connections between universities in UK and in other EU countries.”

Dame Margaret points out that students are less likely to come to UK universities from Europe if they have to pay the full international fees. This would not be damaging solely in terms of income: “The richness of a university is the diversity of the student body, and the friendships you make across borders as a student stay with you for life.”

Economy and business

Cowling observes that “at the time of the 1975 referendum on our membership there was almost universal business support for staying in Europe. That’s not the case now. It’s more mixed, and the small and medium sized area (SME) has a number of people who are more sceptical and agnostic than their fore bearers.” Fears about the value of sterling, and the UK’s credit rating will surface, but Cowling doubts whether a full and balanced debate about the economic advantages and disadvantages of membership will take place. “The Golden Age when everyone received the full facts before the family went to the polling station probably never existed and certainly doesn’t now.”

Charles Clarke says the biggest single risk for business will be inward investment. “Almost all companies which invest in the UK do so in the belief they’re investing in the single European market, and were we no longer in it, many would no longer to invest, or decide to disinvest.”, but Dame Margaret can see how SMEs could be more pro-Brexit:

“Yes well they’re different aren’t they? They are like a resident – they are part of the population.”

Meanwhile, the issue of EU regulation, or ‘red tape’ so frequently highlighted by Euro-sceptics over the years, no longer has quite the same traction, according to Lord Willetts. It should in fact be seen as a positive, he argues, since the single market creates just one set of rules for 28 countries.

Migration and security

The claim that leaving the EU will allow Britain to secure its own borders is clearly set to be an important point of the referendum campaign. The Paris attacks in November had an immediate impact on the polls, shifting opinion in favour of Brexit. Yet Charles Clarke, who was Home Secretary at the time of the 7/7 attacks in London, is in no doubt that being part of the EU strengthens our security. “People can look at the terrible attacks in Paris and say somehow we can get behind our white cliffs of Dover and protect ourselves, but I don’t believe it. The answer is more effective measures on terrorism and organised crime, coordinated across the EU.”

Dame Margaret believes the claim that leaving the EU will allow the UK to curtail migration is flawed. The current wave of migration is a societal change comparable to what took place in the Industrial Revolution, she says. “Change is hard, but kidding people you can put up the borders again after you get out is a false promise. Half of those who come to the UK from outside the EU don’t come on a visitor’s permit or as a refugee; they come on an intra-company work permit. You close one door, and another one opens.”

The Brexit vision

“A very big weakness for the Out campaign is that there isn’t a clear picture of what the alternative is,” comments Clarke. Lord Willetts concurs: he sees an ‘unholy alliance’ between two very different visions for the UK outside the EU, one which involves “pulling up the drawbridge” and turning the clock back, the other where “Britain becomes a global player, looking around the world saying we don’t want to tie ourselves to these decaying, ageing countries in Europe.”

In any case, the process of disentangling the UK from our current membership will prove Herculean, says Lord Willetts: “If you think of the messiest Russian oligarch divorce case in the London courts, and multiply by one thousand, you’ve got what we would be going through for about ten years.”

The outcome

So how final will the result be? If the UK votes to leave, but Scotland doesn’t, Clarke says, “the pressure for a second Scottish referendum on independence would be unstoppable.” Even worse, he reckons, if a similar situation emerges in Wales “it will push the issue of Welsh independence right up the agenda”. On the other hand if the result is decisive, says Clarke, it may settle the question for a long time to come.

The final word goes to David Cowling, who takes a less optimistic view. “What is the evidence that those defeated in the Scottish referendum have given up? None whatsoever. The idea that this referendum will solve this question of Europe is absurd. We had a decisive referendum in 1975, with a two thirds majority. Did it solve anything? Within two years Labour was having a civil war about Europe. The people who are engaged with these big issues are passionate about them. So will the ‘mis-informed’ vote of the majority stop them? Of course not!”


Since writing this article, media attention around the referendum has been growing steadily, and several members of the Conservative Party have come out in support of the ‘Leave’ campaign. Among these figues is Boris Johnson, whose position has attracted considerable media attention.

Says David Cowling, “The significance of Boris Johnson's intervention on behalf of the Leave campaign is that he attracts support from outside his own Conservative party. Lots of people yearn to be told what to do in the Referendum and look to authority figures to assist them in their decision. The big unknown is whether they continue to outsource their decision the closer they approach polling day and the importance of what is at stake becomes clearer.”

'The impact of Boris Johnson's decision to campaign for the UK to Leave the EU is overstated,” says Charles Clarke. “Most voters, including Conservative supporters who in general like Boris, understand very well that in this case his decision is driven entirely by his personal ambition and not at all by rational assessment of the important issues at stake for the nation. I am confident that people decide how to vote on the basis of assessing the interests of the country as a whole"

Following the EU debate? Watch out for an invitation to a special alumni event to coincide with the EU referendum.