Though the vote is still almost three months away, the ticking of the clock counting down to the UK’s forthcoming EU membership referendum is getting louder and louder AND LOUDER. If you’re not bored by the subject already, it’s a racing certainty that you will be by the time June 23rd comes around.
In acknowledgement of the tabloid press’s domination of the circulation wars, Britain, it has been said, is “a nation of Sun readers”. Whereas the mainstream TV outlets were (and, unlike in other countries, to this day remain) largely neutral, back then the daily newspapers often played a major part in the outcome of the political process. So much so, in fact, that, famously, the Sun’s front page headline on polling day in 1992 was cited as a major contributor to the Conservative Party’s unexpected general election victory (even defeated Labour leader Neil Kinnock blamed the paper for tipping the balance in the Tories’ favour).*
Since the plebiscite that took the UK into what was then called the EEC in 1975, however, the nature of the media’s influence on UK politics has changed dramatically. Forty years on, not only has the “red tops’” share of the UK newspaper market declined meaningfully, from 70% to 55%, but the market itself is much diminished, with total sales down from 10.8 million to 6 million total sales. This, we have seen it suggested, makes the odds of a 1992-style surprise far less likely.
Not so, we would argue. Indeed, the fact that the battle lines are increasingly being drawn online, both via the newspapers’ own websites and perhaps more importantly, social media, raises the chances of a rogue result in our view. After all, as we frequently see, almost anything is possible when things “go viral”.
At the time of writing, for example, in an official poll to suggest a name for a new Royal Research Ship, “Boaty McBoatface” has attracted, respectively, more than 9 ½ and 12 ½ times as many votes than the (arguably) more appropriate “Henry Worsley” (British explorer) and “David Attenborough”.
Too silly perhaps? How about this, then: in 2009, a campaign to prevent the winning song from reality “talent” show the X-Factor from becoming Christmas Number 1 for the fifth year running succeeded in propelling an obscure 17-year-old song – “Killing in the Name”, by US rap metal band Rage against the Machine – to the top of the UK singles charts.
So what?, I hear. Well, lest these be considered of dubious relevance, we would point out that the number of “votes” cast in each of these cases of seemingly frivolous protests is in the hundreds of thousands (110,000 and 500,000). Moreover in the second instance, it is worth bearing in mind that their act of rebellion required the protesters to shell out money! As such, in the event of voter turnout similar (30 million) to that in the last general election, it’s entirely conceivable that an act of defiance or belligerence on a comparable scale has the potential to swing the outcome of the referendum.
As far as that outcome is concerned, although recent history suggests that UK opinion polls should be ignored, our expectation is that the current narrow margin in favour of the status quo will prevail. Meanwhile, based on the fact that uncertainty over the outcome will continue to hang over the market, we remain modestly underweight UK assets versus neutrals in terms of our portfolio positioning.
*Interestingly, the same publication switched allegiance five years later, when the odious Tony Blair and his “reptilian” communications director sidekick Alastair Campbell ushered in what was arguably the heyday / nadir (depending on one’s viewpoint) of media-driven personality politics in the UK.Bremain or Brexit? Countdown to the referendum…