One the most divisive and ill-judged campaigns in modern political history will be fought to a standstill today. Will Britain vote to remain or quit the European Union (EU), the world's largest trading block, to stay in or divorce, to end a tempestuous marriage that has lasted since 1973? The polls are barely worth consulting – the margins appear minuscule.
This is not some petty internal British matter but one with European and indeed international ramifications. Britain is the second largest economy in Europe, and the second largest in population.
Other EU states might seek a referendum if the UK did vote to leave creating huge uncertainties as to the future of the EU in its current form. A continent largely free of warfare since 1945 could be split apart with far right parties challenging for power fueled by ultra-nationalist sentiment and anti-immigrant hysteria.
The repercussions of this most vitriolic of democratic exercises will continue for years. Such are the stakes that the supporters of the losing side may undergo some form of near-death experience.
It has been a myth-fueled, stale debate laced with poison and 'paranoid populism', aided according to surveys with a woeful public understanding of the impact of the European Union in Britain.
The poetry of emotion may triumph over the prose of logic. Intellectually the leave campaign is bankrupt particularly on the economy and exactly what would happen to the country on day one outside the EU. Brexit campaigners can barely find an economist to back them and British businesses overwhelmingly support remain. The only international leaders backing Brexit are Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
Britain risks falling off into irrelevance outside the EU, no longer a useful bridge to Europe for the US or a broker between competing French and German ambitions. Military and security experts nearly all line up to say Britain is safer in.
It is no wonder that the Vote Leave leader, Michael Gove claims that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” as he can barely find one that backs him. A leave vote would be a Bob Beamon leap into the unknown. It would be the world’s messiest-ever divorce, according to former Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
Britain risks falling off into irrelevance outside the EU, no longer a useful bridge to Europe for the US or a broker between competing French and German ambitionsChris Doyle
The “leave” camp is saddled with irrational and incoherent arguments but with an incredibly strong emotional pull. Meaningless slogans such as “Take back control” and “We want our country back” seem to have an effect. It has framed the discourse- ‘Brexit’ not ‘Bremain’ after all.
As Republicans have found in the US, it is tough to fight an irrational campaign (Donald Trump’s) rationally. How do you counter a barrage of lies, distortion and misrepresentation by populist speakers? The “remain” campaign has, largely in desperation, overcooked the arguments too – accused of stoking fears like its opponents.
Countries as markets
Yet the leaders of the “remain” campaign did fail to paint the positive picture. Most countries would love to be in this single market of 500 million people, to break down barriers, to build a shared continental dream or peace and democratic rule.
History shows that countries with an international focus and global embrace prosper as indeed Britain did in the 18th and 19th Centuries. “Remain” leaders failed to tackle the toxic immigration head on. All sides portrayed immigration as negative and unwanted not the reality of how immigration has enriched and enhanced Britain. Racist imagery was a vote winner rather than a path to political oblivion.
Many will pray that the vote will end this crisis. Sadly, it is not going to.
The referendum encapsulates multifarious unresolved crises – it a political crisis, a leadership crisis, a constitutional crisis, an economic crisis and a logistical wrapped up into one. A political crisis will continue because whatever the result the British relationship with Europe will still be undecided.
In a “remain” scenario, the free movement of people will scar the debate for years. Quit the EU, somehow politicians will have to devise a divorce with some form of visiting rights where one party of 27 possibly vengeful states is massively more powerful than the other.
Only a victory for “remain” will extend Prime Minister David Cameron’s stay in Downing Street. The Conservative party, never united on Europe, is now no more than a loose confederation of two to three warring factions. Cameron has the slender majority of 16 but with at least 50 hardliners who cannot bear him.
Lose and Cameron will go. But his successor will face a similar dilemma and would in effect lead a minority government. A general election is not impossible.
A constitutional crisis will center on the future of the UK, with a possible referendum for Scotland to leave the UK and join the EU. This remains a very English debate and crisis.
The EU should take note whatever the result. Yes or No, Leave or Stay, the EU is not popular among its members, lacks democratic accountability and leaves too little room for national identities. Anti-EU far right parties have gained ground across Europe.
Some fear that Brussels might be emboldened by a British vote to remain but the much castigated commission bureaucrats should take careful note, whatever the outcome. The only way to end this interminable debate is root and branch reform of this European project, a debate Britain can lead.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.