Let's imagine that David Cameron has come back from his short holiday in Ibiza refreshed and ready to lance the boil on Europe. He announces that there will be an in-out referendum on the EU this autumn and that he has already squared it with Nick Clegg. "It's time to settle this matter once and for all," he says. "Only the British people can do that." Eurosceptics are delighted. Brussels panics. And, in late October, Britain decides on Europe. The result, I can assure you, would be an overwhelming vote to stay in the EU. Judging by their public utterances, many Eurosceptics imagine that if we have ever get a say on Europe, an "out" vote is in the bag. Well, it isn't. British voters are far more likely to decide on staying in. Let me explain why.
In poll after poll, Europe is far down the list of voters' concerns. Political anoraks like me sometimes find this hard to believe. After all, EU rules affect everything from clean air to the regulation shape of bananas. Nonetheless, most people have no idea who their MEP is, let alone the identity of Britain's Commissioner (admittedly, Baroness Ashton richly deserves her obscurity). Even UKIP supporters are not as obsessed by Europe as you'd expect. And we know what happens in referenda about little known subjects on which the voters care little. Just ask the Liberal Democrats.
Until recently, to be a Liberal Democrat activist was to be fixated by voting reform. When she was out walking the dog, the Lib Dem member was musing on the importance of multi-member constituencies. When his kid was home from school, burbling about what he'd done that day, the Liberal Democrat was miles away, balancing the merits of the single transferable vote over cloneproof Schwartz sequential dropping. They thought that the case for PR was obvious. Surely the British people would vote for it given a chance. After all, opinion polls showed big majorities in favour of reform. Well, in May 2011 we got that chance. The result must have been a huge shock to the liberal system. Despite a lead at the start of the campaign and the support of every bien pensant in Islington, voters rejected change by a margin of two to one.
As the Liberal Democrats had discovered, there is a huge inbuilt bias towards the status quo in almost any referendum. On matters that are not everyday concerns to voters, this bias is even greater. The first time many voters will have thought seriously about the subject at hand will be immediately before they vote. They have no time to weigh up the pros and cons, or to decide whether they want to take a leap in the dark. By their nature, referenda are over big issues. Voters simply won't want to take the risk.
It will be the same in a referendum on Europe. True, voters find the EU mildly irritating and they certainly don't want to join the Euro. But faced with the voices of the establishment whispering about three million jobs being dependent on the single market, they'll decide they prefer the devil they know. Life outside is a risk. We could be isolated and lonely. A few Eurosceptics are building an attractive case for a glorious future in the Anglosphere, but it won't make any difference.
There isn't going to be a referendum in the autumn but there will probably be one in 2017. If Eurosceptics want to win that vote, we have to stop fighting with David Cameron and start campaigning now. When the vote comes, people must have already reached a settled decision to vote "out". They need to have conquered their fears about making a big change. Most importantly, they need to have thought about something that they don't usual bother to consider. Otherwise, it's already all over. The Eurosceptic cause will be lost.