Passions are bound to run high when a question of national destiny is being decided, but the gravity of the issue doesn’t explain why levels of personal acrimony in the EU referendum campaign seem so high. Is it all that much more vicious than any other campaign? Last year’s general election was hardly a genteel affair. Neither was this May’s London mayoral race. Politics can be a nasty business.
But an addition quotient of vitriol flows from the origins of this referendum in deep, old schisms within the Conservative party. Civil wars in politics tend to be more vicious and personal than contests along party lines because they involve more atavistic emotions – chiefly betrayal. Tories expect Labour MPs to disagree with them and vice-versa. In that arena, it is possible – often, but not always – to separate political combat from personal hatred. But when someone from your own party, someone whom you considered a colleague, an ally, sides against you, the wound is deeper.
There are Tory MPs who have always despised David Cameron. They believe (not without cause) that he has surrounded himself with a gilded elite and treats rank and file Conservatives much the way an imperial cavalry officer might view grimy infantry conscripts. They long suspected him of harbouring Europhiliac tendencies but went along with the pretence of his EU membership “renegotiation.” Some appear to have operated under the delusion that Cameron might not throw the full authority of his prime ministerial office at the job of winning the referendum for Remain. They seem genuinely aggrieved that he is even trying.
And, of course, in Boris Johnson they have a figurehead whose ambition to one day lead the party gives him every incentive to see Cameron’s personal brand irrevocably tarnished, regardless of the result. Within the Tory party the political and personal have become deeply enmeshed. The task of advancing a particular message has become indistinguishable from the job of discrediting the other side’s messengers. In that climate it is hardly surprising that the fight looks and sounds dirty.