Lacking any intellectually sound argument, the Leave crowd centres its appeal on the hot-button issue of migration. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and company dangle the illusion of a 'pure' British labour market in front of their followers just as Trump promises a Mexican-built wall to those who are afraid of globalisation.
If this is paradoxical for a country like the US, whose history is built on successful integration of immigrants from many parts of the world ('E pluribus unum'), the argument is equal nonsense for Great Britain, which has absorbed a far larger number of immigrants from the far-flung corners of its past Empire (India, Pakistan, the Caribbean) than any amount of Polish plumbers, Romanian carpenters and Lithuanian coffee-house owners ever likely to come to the British Isles. Not only has it absorbed the former, it has made them part of the national narrative through role models such as the newly elected Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
Yet the Pro-Brexit crowd has successfully manipulated public emotions to look at the European market solely in terms of the influx to the UK of blue-collar labour, mainly from Eastern European countries, where such workers are paid even less than their British counterparts. Other key aspects of that market are conveniently forgotten, such as the borderless flow of goods, services and capital (including the liberty of British banks to do business freely within what is still the most important global economic bloc). Without these connections, London would be a financial backwater and Northern England still a wasteland of the unemployed whose work at the heart of the former Empire long ago moved overseas.
That Empire is irretrievably gone, so any cutting off from Europe today will not only fail to bring these jobs back but will stop investment, innovation and talent flowing in from the continent. Former prime minister Gordon Brown might not be the politically astute orator Boris Johnson is, but he outranks Boris by far in statesmanship. Brown calls upon his countrymen to discover 'a post-imperial role in the vanguard of the next stage of Europe's development'.
Johnson as politician and now flag carrier of the Leave crowd certainly cultivates his eccentric image, but is of course just another coolly calculating politician. Yet hitching his political fate to what he perceives as a fast train to the premiership might still backfire. Whichever way the vote goes, his 'Merry Old England' bluff will invariably be called. He was, after all, mayor of a liberal London with soaring office towers full of French entrepreneurs, Spanish architects, Italian designers and German bankers.
Photo by Flickr user BackBoris2012 Campaign.