At times—blessedly—politics barely intrude on normal life. Last year, for example, Britain held an election that bored virtually everyone who wasn't directly involved in it. It was no more consequential than most elections (in other words, it mattered, but not as much as everyone believed), but it had the merit of producing an entirely reasonable outcome that almost no one (myself included) expected: A bored nation voted narrowly for a boring party, the Conservatives, and was placidly surprised by the outcome.
None of this is the case in the Brexit referendum. Having been in London for the past week, I can safely say that, while lots of people would like the referendum to be over (they'll get their wish on Thursday), no one's short of opinions on it. Sitting in pubs, there's Brexit. Riding in taxis, Brexit rides along. Looking at shop windows, Brexit looks back. It's often said that, except for a tiny minority, Europe isn't a voting issue in Britain. And it's true that, in the hierarchy of issues in any election, Europe rarely ranks higher than fifth. As with foreign policy writ large, it seems a case of out of sight, out of mind.
But yet that is misleading, because there is no point in voting on an issue if you're not being offered a choice on it. And British parties generally do offer a choice on the major domestic issues. As is sadly the wont of conservative parties everywhere, the Tories talk a better game than they deliver when it comes to reducing the size of the state. And, thankfully, Labour is on occasion modestly less financially catastrophic than its pledges to expand the welfare state would imply. Still, there is no mistaking which way both parties lean.
But when it comes to Brexit, the parties haven't offered a choice since 1983, when Labour was firmly committed to out. And since that was the moment of Labour's greatest socialist, unilateralist, nationalizing folly, choosing them was no choice at all.
Of course, Prime Minister David Cameron didn't really intend to offer a choice, in the sense that you have a choice what of to have for dinner—i.e., he didn't mean to present several options to the public and await their decision. From the very beginning, the business has been about play-acting at choice. In other words, it was, or at least was supposed to be, a stitch-up.
Back in 2009, then-opposition leader Cameron promised a referendum on the EU constitution, which he managed to dodge after he mostly won the 2010 election: The fact that he was leading a coalition government with the rabidly pro-EU Liberal Democrats proved on this occasion, as on others, to be very convenient. When in January 2013 Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership, he was running scared from the then-surging U.K. Independence Party and must have assumed that the thing to do was promise now, and renegotiate the promise later.
But unexpectedly, the Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out in 2015, and Cameron was left with little option but to proceed with the referendum. Like a clever schoolchild who does his homework early, he opted to go as fast as possible—well before the last possible date at the end of 2017—to make it harder for his opponents to get organized, to reduce the chance that another of the EU's regular crises (is it the turn of the refugees, the Greeks, or the Russians?) would make voters think twice, and, less obviously, to make sure that the electoral data available to the party for the referendum campaign was as recent as possible. After making great play with a supposed renegotiation that yielded almost nothing—and about which neither he nor the Remain campaign now say much at all—Cameron declared victory and moved ahead with the campaign.
Virtually no one on the continent treated the entire affair seriously, expected that the referendum might yield an unexpected outcome, or even noticed it at all.
As The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, Europe has just now begun to wake up to the possibility that Britain might exit. If you follow Albert O. Hirschman's model that, in the face of deteriorating quality of a service or organization, consumers and nations alike have the option of voice or exit, Europe's and Cameron's failure to take the option of voice seriously would seem to indicate that the obvious option is to exit. Unfortunately, that doesn't account of the third possibility: masochistic endurance, or, to put in Victorian language, sticking close to nurse for fear of something worse.
Right now, the pound is surging, and the markets have obviously concluded that Brexit is a loser. That is what the polls have mostly said too, with the exception of a brief surge in early June, and the betting markets have never made Brexit a favorite. The Remain campaign is piling on: its strategy of hitting hard and early with President Obama's visit in April didn't work, but it did save a bit of powder for the end, with folks as various as the Premier League (the top English tier of what Americans call soccer, and which prospers mostly by taking talent from Europe, not selling to it) and J.K Rowling, who is very good at conjuring up fictional dangers relating to wizards, warning of the terrible perils ahead if Brexit is triumphant.
If it does lose, it will be a matter for the historians to decide whether it was the Remain campaign that won it or the Leave one that lost it, or whether the structure of the situation gave Remain an inherent edge—or whether the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox on Thursday by a far-right neo-Nazi broke the momentum of a Leave campaign that appeared to be pulling away and gave waverers an easy reason to vote Remain. Of such accidents can destiny be made. The stitch-up may yet be stitched shut. But as Britain saw last May, the reason you hold elections is because you don't know how they'll turn out.
Originally published in The Weekly Standard