Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
16 July 2015

How does In win the European referendum? But admitting Out has a point

Hysterical warnings about Brexit won't be enough to win the referendum, says Kevin Meagher. 

By Kevin Meagher

A referendum, by its very nature, is a straight choice. ‘I am right and the other side is wrong.’ Not just wrong in fact, but hilariously, pathetically wrong. So voters must choose Path A, that is to say, the route to salvation that I offer, because Path B leads straight to the gates of Hell.

So it will be with our forthcoming plebiscite on the European Union, where the public will be presented with the stark choice of keeping us in, or leaving. For campaigners on either side of the debate, there can be no ambiguity. No room for even the merest, fleeting uncertainty as they make their case.

Yet, reasonable people are persuadable. Open to discussion. They are willing to hear different points of view. Capable of crossing the demarcations of a stark, zero-sum political offer. Bookended by the true believers of either side, the British people retain their doubts.

Although, on the basis of Ipsos-MORI’s tracker poll, support for remaining in is currently charting at 66 per cent – the highest figure they have ever recorded – we know it is also volatile.

Back in December 1991, support for the (then) European Community was at 60 per cent. But this was just ten months before Black Wednesday and Britain’s humiliating and costly ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. By October 1993, support for Europe had dropped 14 points to 46 per cent.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

We don’t know yet know how the Greek meltdown will affect public attitudes, or the on-going immigration crises, played out in the Italian seas or the channel tunnel. Will these shocks confirm eurosceptic claims that the decadent EU has outlived its purpose and is undergoing a drawn-out decline into terminal irrelevance? Or will it convince voters that in a world or galloping global insecurity it is better to club together with countries of a similar heritage against the fear of something worse?

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

All of which is to say that, for the mercurial British public, Europe isn’t a black and white choice. Views ebb and flow. Consolidate and melt away. As recently as November 2012, support was as low as 44 per cent. There are many aspects of the EU the public accept, but there are things they don’t like too, and many more that, in all probability, they don’t really understand.

So here’s a thought for pro-Europeans. If voters are torn between the competing claims of the pro and anti-EU camps – perhaps recognising the validity of aspects of either side’s analysis – is it not wise for campaigners to equally accept that parts of their opponent’s argument have merit as a means of persuading the poor, conflicted voter that your case transcends the usual referendum propaganda?

The weary cynicism that greets politicians’ claims might be lessened by a balanced, synthesised message to voters that treats them as reasonable people capable of making a reasoned choice.

Why not concede that, while staying in the EU is overwhelmingly in the UK’s strategic interests, the way the EU works is often pretty rotten. Unverified Commission accounts. Weak foreign policy co-ordination. Wasteful spending on nonsense like the common agricultural policy. Open borders that are encouraging a level of migration many feel uneasy about. A lack of focus on investing in skills, technology and infrastructure.

It’s surely any sensible person’s view that the EU is not very democratic and that people don’t like being told what to do by bureaucrats they didn’t elect. Accepting that eurosceptics are sometimes right to be so, would be a refreshing change from the banal rhetoric about the apocalyptic consequences of leaving.

And while Britain’s economy would certainly change if we left, (and in all likelihood get worse for many people), why not concede that we would still be free to trade with our former partners, albeit, with a host of new hassles, restrictions and costs.

Likewise, anti-EU campaigners would be smart to accept no-one seriously believes that nations’ co-operating is inherently a bad idea. And for all their obsessive campaigning, sceptics have never succeeded in painting a vision of a post-EU Britain. What would be so great about leaving, above and beyond the seemingly obsessional desire to do so?

For those of us living in the north of England, or South Wales, or Scotland, the EU represents a civilising influence. Without billions in EU structural funds to counter Thatcherite economic shock therapy, ex-coal fields and manufacturing areas would be ghost towns by now. And are we really saying that all those EU directives on drinking water quality, which have brought our former “industrial rivers” back to life again, are a bad thing? 

Both the pro and anti voices in our stunted, reductive debate about Europe currently suffer from the same pathological inability to recognise that the other side makes a number of fair points. Perhaps the first to do so will find their candour chimes better with the electorate’s mistrust of outdated, binary arguments.