As Polls for Britain's EU Referendum Open, Voters Must Choose Between Two Fears

At the betting shops, a wager on 'Leave' will get you much better odds, but many voters in Luton don't seem convinced they will cash out either way.

A student supporter of remaining in the EU campaigns in the lead up to the referendum at Holborn in London, June 20, 2016.
Luke MacGregor, Reuters

LONDON - Monday evening, as darkness falls on the city center of Luton, a working-class town north of London, two distinct streams of men walk through the pedestrian mall. The men in one are wearing white T-shirts with crosses of St. George and three lions, symbols of the England football team. Filled with beer, they’re leaving the pubs at the end of England's game against Slovakia in the European Football Championship, which ended in a disappointing goal-less draw. The men in the other are younger and they walk in couples, some in western clothes and others in more traditional Pakistani garb. They've just finished eating in the fast-food venues offering Halal meat (and not a drop of alcohol) at the end of the day’s Ramadan fast.

In the previous decade, tension between the communities in Luton ran high. This was the town where members of the English Defence League, a far-right movement, marched provocatively in areas with large Muslim populations and near mosques. (In addition to flags featuring St. George, they also brandished Israeli flags, even though the Jewish community would have nothing to do with them.) In recent years, however, things in Luton have calmed down as a result of community action and better policing. Still, on a Ramadan evening and in the aftermath of a major European football match, the two groups have little in common. The same can be said about Thursday’s referendum over Britain’s membership in the European Union.

In one of the local pubs, the crowd boos every time "Europe" is mentioned by the game's presenters. Will English patriotism and hostility to the neighboring continent be translated into a vote to exit the EU? As they leave the pub, most of the football fans are not eager to talk politics. All seem to be in favor of leaving, but will they vote? Many appear uncertain and this is one of the hopes of the "Remain" campaign — polls show that lower-income and less-educated citizens are against Europe but also less likely to actually vote.

In contrast, young Muslims in Luton are much more involved and politically aware. Most of them are leaning towards voting "Remain." “I weighed up both sides,” says Anjem Shah, a mathematics student at London’s Kings College. “The bottom line is that the arguments are all speculation, so I don’t think we should risk our economy by leaving.”

“Better the devil you know,” says Taher Khan, an engineer. “The politicians on both sides are trying to scare us, so at least we should vote for stability.” Muslims in Luton are acutely aware that fear of Muslim immigrants is a central factor in the motivation of many to vote "Leave," but they prepare not to dwell on it. “I actually understand the concerns of those voting 'Leave,'” says Shah. “I know there’s a racist part to it but the fear of Islamist extremism is real. As a believing Muslim, I know that here in Britain I have more freedom than in any Muslim country and it’s right to be concerned about losing that.”

Many of the businesses in downtown Luton have shut down. Pubs have been hit especially hard by the smoking ban of 2007 and the change in the local demographics, which has decreased the number of recreational drinkers. The betting shops are doing a brisk trade, though. Each shop seems to serve a different part of the city’s population and all the patrons are male. In one betting shop there are only black men; another has Eastern Europeans; a third, old white men. They all share the same desperate look in their eyes, watching the screens, clutching betting forms which may turn into golden tickets. “Everyone here is betting on horses or dogs or football,” says Salman, who manages one of the shops. “No one has asked to bet on the referendum. I won’t vote on Thursday because if we remain, the Europeans will have to much power, and if we leave, David Cameron will have too much power. Either way we lose. So why vote?”

In wealthier parts of Britain, there is keen betting on the referendum. By Monday, betting companies had received 43 million pounds worth of bets. The latest polls indicate the results are very close, but the bookies seem pretty convinced the vote will be "Remain." A bet on "Leave" will get you much better odds, but many voters in Luton don’t seem convinced they will cash out either way.

An hour up the road, in Oxford, there doesn’t seem to much doubt. At Brasenose College, founded in 1509, undergraduates walk with a quiet air of authority and confidence in their shining futures. Among the statesmen and generals who studied at Brasenose, one of the ancient colleges of Oxford University, is Prime Minister David Cameron. But they lose a bit of their nonchalance when asked how they plan to vote on Thursday and all of them prefer not to be named. Not that they are in any doubt. As one says, “of course we’re going to vote 'Remain.' We’ve got sense.” But as young men and women who expect to soon embark on their assured paths to prominent jobs in Britain’s establishment, why take the risk and be labeled as "pro-European" when the country may be going down the path of Brexit?

“Everyone here is voting 'In,'” says one undergraduate. “In the college we walk around with ‘In’ badges.” Outside is another matter. “It’s clear that for our economic future, and for Britain, it’s much better to be inside Europe,” says a third student, seemingly incapable of differentiating between her own financial fortunes and those of the country. For these young people, instinctively members of the global elite, studying alongside a large cohort of foreign students from around the world, there can be no question that Britain should remember part of the EU.

But walking away from the dreaming spires of the colleges, more and more “Leave” signs can be seen in windows and doorways. Michael Keirs has hung such a sign over the entrance to his small bookstore only a few streets away. He sports a big “Leave” pin on his shirt as well. He disagrees with those who say that leaving Europe is an attempt to turn back history and disconnect Britain from the world. “We are a global nation which has always traded with the entire world. Since we joined the EU, we restricted ourselves," he says. "I’m glad that we fought for Europe in the world wars but that doesn’t mean we have to give our money to an unaccountable organization which has lost 80 billion euros in its accounts.”

Supporters of the Vote Leave campaign cheer as they wait for Boris Johnson during the first day of a nationwide bus tour to campaign for a Brexit, Truro, U.K., May 11, 2016.
Luke MacGregor, Bloomberg

As in many other university towns, Oxford also has its town-and-gown divide between the privileged students who live in their bubble and will leave after a few years to capture the world and the local community who will remain there for life. “They’re annoying,” says Morgan Pinnel, a lab technician. “They come here with this massive feeling of entitlement.” She is also leaning towards voting "Remain," though she’s not certain. “My one consideration is the [National Health Service]. I’m trying to make sure that staying in Europe will help the NHS. I’ve seen reports arguing both sides so I’m not yet sure,” she says. Her friend Alberta Williams, who runs a local eyeglasses store, is leaning the other way. “We have a problem here with immigrants who arrive and get benefits, and it comes at the expense of British people who were born here," says Williams. "I’m not being racist, we have black people in my family. But there should be rules that only people who can make their own living be allowed to arrive here.”

As in any election, the battle at the last stage is for the undecided, floating voters — the waverers. But unlike regular elections, the referendum voters are not divided along party lines. Traditional voters of both large parties, the Conservatives and Labour, are split.

Two relatively senior members of the Conservatives, MP Sarah Wollaston and former minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, defected from the "Leave" camp to "Remain." Wollaston, a doctor and chair of the parliament’s health committee, objected to the "Leave" campaign's claims that Britain is sending massive sums to the European Union at the expense of the NHS. Warsi, one of Britain’s more prominent Muslim politicians, claimed that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the "Leave" campaign has racist tones. Their protests mirror those of the "Leave" supporters accusing "Remain" of waging “operation fear,” scaring the voters with an economic meltdown if Britain leaves the EU.

But the "Remain" campaign can hardly refrain from warning against damage to the economy, and they’re not on their own. Business leaders who usually keep out of politics are acting differently on the eve of referendum. Many CEOs of major companies have sent letters to their employees, suggesting that a vote for staying in the EU would be preferable in the interest of job security.

The Financial Times' poll of polls has the two sides in a dead heat, with 44 percent each. That still leaves a significant number of undecided voters. Both camps have been using the last days of campaigning to play up their main themes: "Remain" for the economy, "Leave" to stop uncontrolled emigration. Leave and the pound will plummet, another recession will arrive and Britain will be isolated from world trade. Remain and millions of Syrian refugees and Turkish migrants will land on Britain’s shores, taking up jobs and hospital beds.

The winner will be the camp that can more effectively stoke the fears of British voters.