Bob Rae teaches at the University of Toronto and is the author of What's Happened to Politics?
It has been a bitter, negative, intensely divisive debate, and the referendum vote in Britain will not resolve the fracture lines that have been so nastily exposed. Both sides in the debate have resorted to outlandish claims and rhetoric, and the leaders of the major political parties have lost trust and ground with the electorate.
Prime Minister David Cameron must have thought that the promise of a referendum after negotiating a "new deal" with Europe would unite his party before the last election and strengthen his leadership once he convinced his EU partners to give him something. He thought he could confine the opposition to a ragtag bunch of little Englanders, extremists and holdouts from the far right and left.
A tactical gambit became a strategic nightmare. When the referendum campaign began, the populist former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced his decision to join the Vote Leave camp. He was joined by a significant number of cabinet members and MPs.
The Labour Party was less divided but has kept a low profile, with Leader Jeremy Corbyn giving only a few, dyspeptic and confused interviews. "I don't like the EU that much, but leaving altogether is, on balance, a less wise choice than staying in to work for change," he said. Talk about two cheers.
The deep fault lines in Britain between those who are doing better and those who have fared worse under the impact of globalization and economic disruption have been at the heart of the debate. And for the latter, immigration has become the defining issue. Older, poorer English people feel abandoned by Labour and the Tories and are stubbornly using the campaign to "send a message."
The problem is that this referendum involves a momentous decision and is not simply expressing a mood. The European project has been a remarkable achievement since it started as a pact over coal and steel between France and Germany in the 1950s: a common market of 500 million people; a common currency for most members; freedom of movement between member countries; plus a host of initiatives ensuring more opportunities for students, research, governance assistance and improved environmental and health and safety standards.
The negative, querulous tone that has been struck by Vote Leave campaign leaders such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, backed by bogus numbers and "don't worry" rhetoric, should have been met by a broadly based positive campaign, but that simply didn't happen. That Brexit would come with a cost cannot be doubted, but Remain needed to present an opportunity as well as a reminder about the risks.
The assassination of popular MP Jo Cox last week, combined with the release of a UK Independence Party poster showing hordes of non-white refugees at the gates, seems to have led to a slowdown in momentum for the Leave campaign. The country is now looking itself in the mirror and coming to terms with the nastiness and extremism that simmers beneath the surface of the populism of modern politics. Numerous polls remain very close, but there seems to be an indefinable change in mood.
Mr. Cameron may yet get his majority to remain, but it has come with a price. His own credibility has been shaken because of the fear-mongering in his rhetoric and the shallow salesmanship that has surrounded his efforts. He is of course right when he points out that 40 years of economic integration and institution building cannot be undone without cost, but he has singularly failed to create the positive momentum for the European idea that is so critical at this time. And the divisions in his own party have been exposed for all to see. It will be hard to pull it together after the vote, even if Remain wins.
There is a view in life that a good argument "clears the air." There are indeed circumstances in which there is dignity in difference, and solutions are found after a vigorous debate. But when all civility is lost, anger just breeds more anger. The clouds do not break into sunshine.