It has been a week in Britain when the nerves began to fray. Polls have begun to show the Leave campaign ahead – YouGov, four points ahead – and realisation has been dawning Brexit might actually happen. Two weeks to go. Perhaps the sudden prospect of that nightmare will itself mobilise the less motivated enough to ensure they vote. But there is still a case that can be won.
In no small measure the economic debate has been won. The case that leaving the single market for an uncertain, still-to-be-negotiated trading relationship would at the very least disrupt trade, the arguments that market uncertainty would be inevitable, that prices and interest rates would rise, that investment and jobs would flow out of the UK ... have all been made persuasively by business, the Bank of England, the Treasury and a rake of multinational financial institutions from the IMF to the OECD, and friendly world leaders.
Whether voters are listening is another matter. There are echoes of our own EU debates in the simultaneous complaints, in the face of an information deluge from the media, that voters have not got enough to make a decision, and that those most expert and charged with assessing risk on the public’s behalf should stay out of the debate.
The Leave campaign's wilful ignorance and mendacity brings to mind the appalling US nativist "Know Nothing Party" of the 1850s which thrived on anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic (mainly Irish and Italian) rhetoric. Its supporters boasted ignorance of their own comrades' machinations – "I know nothing", they told journalists. "The people of this country have had enough of experts ...," Oxford-educated Minister Michael Gove told one TV interview in a similar vein. As good an admission that the facts don't matter as one will get. Though one suspects that if the experts had been on the other side of the argument their advice would have been most welcome.
Nowhere has the manipluation of truth been more cynical and verging on racism than on immigration. Brexiters play on fears that the NHS, which survives on migrant labour, and local authority housing are being “overwhelmed” by migrants who, studies show, actually pay more in taxes than they get in handouts from the state. They assiduoulsy fail to acknowledge, moreover, that two thirds of the 330,000 migrants in 2015 came from outside the EU. And it is cynically suggested to Commonwealth immigrants that the only thing standing between them and family reunifications are EU migrants whose exclusion would open all sorts of doors ... as if a Johnson/Gove-led government would suddenly discover a new enthusiasm for black migration.
Brexit would be a tragedy for the UK and this country. That tragedy would be compounded and fine democratic traditions usurped were the decision to be made on the basis of a perversion of debate and of demagoguery and lies.