We are hearing a lot about the hostility in Britain towards the EU, and the prospects of Britain sliding out of the door some time between now and the time that a referendum is held on British membership (an increasingly unlikely event, incidentally, given all the stars that need to come into alignment, not least an outright Tory victory at the next general election). But while all the talk seems to be about ‘Britain’ doing this and the ‘British’ feeling that, it is abundantly clear that the generalizations about ‘British’ positions on the EU take almost no account of (a) the diversity of British views on the EU, or (b) how little most Britons in fact know or care about the EU.
It is time, in other words, to look a little more closely at where the momentum is coming from, and to ask just who it is who is driving all this talk of a British exit. To generalize heroically, but to offer a short answer, it is primarily elderly Tories who are making the running. It is not younger Britons, because polls show that they generally favour Britain staying within the EU (see Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung), and it is not mainstream members of the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, even if the casual observer might conclude – on the basis of their lukewarm defence of the EU – that the leadership of neither party is enthusiastically Europhile.
So let’s be clear about this: it is not “Britain” or “the UK” or the “British” who want/s to leave the EU, but a sub-section of a political party that was unable to win a majority at the last general election, and looks likely to repeat that performance at the next general election.
March 2016 update: Obviously the Conservatives won and the referendum is going ahead, and I – like many others – was wrong-footed by the polls. The last paragraph is also wrong: polls currently show that about 35% of people in the UK want to leave the EU, about 35% want to stay, and the balance could go either way. But I still hold by my other comments.