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  • Hinge Moments: Leave! February 6, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback

    History, particularly military and political history, often enough seems to be a series of interlocking junctions and roads. The roads splay and, as we march along, other roads and junctions appear as those behind us disappear in the twilight. In the same way that we sometimes remember our mortality, stroking the skull on the desk, so in history we remember agency: the fact that things need not have been as they, in fact, were. This becomes particularly evident where there is a close run thing – a battle that could have gone either way, an assassination that came this close to failing… – and we are forced to recall, for a split second, before denial kicks back in, that nothing is preordained. Beach recently came across a particularly striking example of this from Tim Shipman’s All Out War, our best history of Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union.

    Three background points for those from outside the UK. First, the referendum was a crucial choice for a relatively powerful country. This was not Iceland voting on its road system: Britain was making its most important decision since the autumn of 1939.

    Second, the referendum ended up having just 600,000 votes in it (52%-48%): turn a couple of dials and the final vote would have been different, particularly given how many people were uncertain up until the final hours.

    Third, one of the crucial factors in having Britain vote to leave the EU was the choice of official campaign. Two organizations, Leave.EU and Vote Leave, emerged from the rainbow coalition of anti-EU parties and groups, but only one would be given official sanction by the British government. This was not an unimportant choice. The two organizations has very different philosophies about how to campaign. The officially sanctioned campaign, Vote Leave, proved able to win the campaign. Everything we now know suggests that Leave.EU would have lost, and perhaps by a large margin.

    Now to the hinge moment:

    At 10.30 p.m. on the day before the deadline [for the choice of officially sanctioned campaign] ‘Ricardo’ Howell [of Vote Leave] was writing the section on engagement with other campaigns [on the application form] when Victoria Woodcock said, ‘Wouldn’t it be worth working out what the actual criteria are?’ Howell read them all and, horrified, announced to the room, ‘We haven’t answered any of them, and all our material in this section’s irrelevant, and it’s worth twelve out of fifty points.’ They stayed up until 3.30 a.m. rewriting the whole section. ‘It was quite literally an essay crisis,’ a Vote Leave source said. ‘It was down to Vicks that we got it in.’ They finally sent the document in at 11.40 the following night, twenty minutes before the deadline. As key moments in the referendum campaign go, this ranks highly. But for Woodcock’s intervention, or with a delay of twenty minutes…’

    Leave.EU would have been given sanction and the campaign would, very likely, have gone the other way.

    Beach makes no comment here as to whether that would have been a good or bad thing: but having spent much of the last ten years worrying about point criteria for higher education grants (not least to the EU), the story reverberated. Other hinge moments from very recent history: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    Beach adds: another moment when Leave would have lost the referendum, with a unitedly pro-European Labour party under the moderate left.
    Stephen D with a correction, 12 Feb 2017: Re the late referendum, you wrote: “the referendum ended up having just 600,000 votes in it”.Actual result, Leave 17,410,742; Remain 16,141,241. Difference, 1,269,501.Did you mean that if just over 600,000 voters had gone the other way, the result would have been different?
    Beach replies: Yes, sorry!