This chart, courtesy of Mike Smithson, shows Ipsos-Mori’s polling on British membership of the European Union. It shows support for leaving the EU is no higher now than it was 20 years ago. I’ll wager this surprises you.
As you can see, there has always been a constituency for leaving the EU. Public enthusiasm for the european project has always been conditional. Despite that, the unhappiness of a known known has generally proved more attractive than the uncertainty of a known unknown. (This, ahem, is also true of certain other constitutional questions with which we have wrestled recently.)
But how can this be? How can UKIP be soaring in the polls even as public support for their greatest proposal sags? Well and though newspapers and television struggle to reflect this, more than one thing can happen at once. In this instance I suspect the two trends are intimately connected.
That is, all the attention paid to UKIP at present is all very well and good in the sense it helps boost their poll ratings but it also comes at a significant price. Namely, by tarnishing the cause of removing Britain from the EU.
Associations matter. Many people have had a chance to take a proper look at UKIP and, frankly, they don’t much care for what they see. Many people, you see, are fairly sensible. They have no desire to be associated with a party of dyspeptic misanthropes.
This being the case it it follows that UKIP, paradoxically, tarnish and hamper their own cause. There is a rally effect here: if UKIP are for something many people will say I’d better be against it. If UKIP are obsessed with heaving Britain out of the EU the EU must have something going for it. People who do not obsess over these things can nonetheless be impressed – in a negative way – by those who do obsess over these things.
In other words, UKIP may help kill the thing they love the most. Without realising it, they may actually limit support for leaving the EU. UKIP may put a ceiling on euro-scepticism not a floor. And the more attention and publicity UKIP enjoy the lower that ceiling may become.
Such are the unintended consequences of popularity. But then politics is a game of ironies, right enough.