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Q&A: Why is the UK even having a referendum on EU membership?

People in the UK have been bombarded with talk of Brexit for months and amid the heat of the campaign it can be easy to lose sight of the events which led to this pivotal moment in the country’s history. But for those outside of the UK, the whole debate seems to have come out of the blue. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Britain is a European country – so, why is it having a referendum on membership of the European Union?

In this extract from the second episode of The Anthill, a podcast from The Conversation, Cities editor Emily Lindsay Brown talks to Andrew Scott Crines, lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

Andrew Scott Crines, Lecturer in British Politics, University of Liverpool. The Anthill, CC BY-ND3.97 MB (download)

Why is the UK having a referendum on its EU membership?

Put simply, the issue of Britain in Europe has never really been settled since we joined in 1973. There have always been disputes over how and why [then prime minister] Edward Heath was so keen to get us in. In fact, a couple of years later, we had a referendum on whether or not we should come out of the Common Market, after spending years trying to gain access to it. This was partly because the idea had never really been sold to the British public.

These issues continued grumbling through the Conservative party throughout the 1980s, intensifying during the 1990s and remaining there through the beginning of the 21st century. But they were given rocket boosters by the Lisbon Treaty [in 2009], and the way in which a referendum was promised at that point, but was not delivered. As a result, the right wing of the Conservative party exploded. And the way that David Cameron has chosen to manage that, is to promise this In/Out referendum, as a way of placating the party and keeping it happy.

Unfortunately, as we got closer to the referendum date, issues of immigration – and the migration crisis, particularly – have been thrown onto the agenda in a way which initially may not have been foreseen. Those who are calling for Britain to leave the EU are now pointing more towards issues of immigration, to ideas of a British exceptionalism and British identity, and arguing that we need to protect those things because they are being threatened by an influx of immigration.

Why do British people think that the UK is somehow different and special, and will having a referendum resolve those issues?

To take the second point first; no, having a referendum is unlikely to resolve these issues.

But the reason that we regard ourselves as exceptional – or the reason that some do, anyway – is that we’ve never really embraced a genuine sense of cohesive European identity, while across the continent they have done so; there’s a sort of sense of togetherness. Also, Britain has an imperial hangover, which it believes makes it an exceptional country, and therefore different to the rest of the EU.

Is there a clear split on this topic between left-wing and right-wing voters? Or are there some left-wing voters who would also like to leave the EU?

There are certainly some left-wing voters who would like to leave the EU, because they have the idea that once we are outside of the EU, somehow that will enable a more fair and socially democratic society to emerge in Britain. They argue that the EU is effectively a capitalist club, and that for as long as we are a part of the EU, we cannot have a genuinely fair system.

The only issue with that argument is that it’s completely false. Britain would be likely to become more libertarian and more free-market orientated, if we were to be outside of the EU – it would actually undermine some of those rights, which left-wingers argue we would be better able to protect. So the kind of Britain we would be outside of the EU, is not the kind of Britain that people on the left want.

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