IT'S DEJAVU all over again. There’s suddenly lots of press coverage of a referendum and the line between passionate debate and angry ranting on Twitter is even finer than usual. There’s even a campaign for the status quo with an inelegant name, boiling their entire argument down to a balance sheet – making me nervous about their chances of success. Thus far, the only thing that seems different is that Eddie Izzard’s been replaced in the role of “cool” “celebrity” for “young people” to get behind, by June Sarpong (who I had to Google).
The arguments coming from the Leave and Remain camps for the EU referendum are disturbingly familiar. Vote Leave to re-establish national sovereignty, be freed from a distant/ corrupt/ ineffective parliament which is out of touch with “ordinary” people and you’ll be financially better off. Vote Remain because we’re stronger together, it’s vital to our economic security, oh and you’re financially better off. While I’m always keen for Scotland to boost it’s exports, this wasn’t what I had in mind.
Mind you, just because the arguments are the same doesn’t mean the outcome will be. The Out Campaign / Quitters/ Leave(rs) (I assume we’ll get some kind of unity on what we’re supposed to call them at some point) have all the same things going for them that Yes Scotland did; large amounts of money, the ability to paint a picture of an imagined better future on the basis of little or no evidence, highly motivated grassroots supporters and a total belief that they can win.
Meanwhile, the In Campaign/ Remain(ers)/ Yes Europe? (or whatever) are faced with many of the same hurdles as Better Together but perhaps on a greater scale. Opinion polling suggests the margin between Leave and Remain across the UK is decidedly narrower than Yes and No were in Scotland. Better Together could afford a certain level of conversion from No to Yes as long as they managed the rate of loss. The “Britain Stronger In Europe” campaign (a name which makes me yearn for “Better Together”) is starting from distinctly thinner ice, with a far greater need to win over undecideds and soft “Outers”.
What should be most worrying for those who support Britain remaining in Europe though, is the difference in perception between the Union between Scotland and the rUK and Britain and the EU. While it might have been towards the end of the campaign before Better Together ever fully accepted the need for a campaign based on something more than the idea that voters base their decisions on an entirely rational economic model (and that Labour voters might not just do what Labour tells them), they did have one thing working for them – people understood the UK.
Whether they liked or loathed the UK, or even considered it benign, people knew broadly what it stood for, what it did and how its actions affected them. It might be wrong to call it nostalgia, but because it is familiar to voters, even those who aren’t that interested in politics, undecided voters were probably more willing to trust it at crunch time.
The EU is a more ethereal entity than the UK. Most voters couldn’t tell you that the EU has bases in Brussels and Strasbourg, never mind explain why. Actually, I don’t think anyone has a particularly good reason for that, but my point is that people know very little about it beyond the fact that it exists and it’s the reason we can’t buy 100W lightbulbs anymore. The security, prosperity and “strength” we get from the EU that the “In” campaign is talking about is, at best, two or three degrees removed from the average voter. At worst, many voters experiencing the impact of austerity in one way or another may simply hear the multi-billion pound figure that the UK contributes to the EU (one of the more common out of context figures from the “Out” campaign), decide there are more pressing ways the money could be spent and vote to leave.
It seems we have learned nothing from the experience of the independence referendum in Scotland. Frankly, given much of the campaign rhetoric and media comment, I’m beginning to wonder if anyone was really paying attention? Suddenly, the question of leaving the EU has become the biggest choice of our lifetimes (I won’t use generation because that length of time has become remarkably flexible). It wasn’t that long ago that much the same thing was being said, by many of the same people, about the independence referendum. On balance I’d have to suggest that anyone who believes leaving the EU has greater implications for the UK than Scotland leaving the UK, is out of their, presumably, very small minds. With the greatest respect to EU obsessives on both sides, get a grip.
The campaign has barely begun and already both sides are falling victim to some of the worst excesses of the independence referendum. The In campaign appears devoid of anything resembling a coherent, positive narrative and instead deploys the kind of marketing strategy that’s more commonly used by firms selling “doomsday” bunkers. The Out campaign is no better; painting a picture of post-EU Britain in which former members of the British Empire are queuing up at the White Cliffs of Dover to rejoin.
The EU campaign looks as though it will be just as prone to ugly debate and divisiveness as the Scottish Referendum. Worse though, is the real sense that this debate, more than the Scottish referendum, will highlight a worrying gap between many politicians and the concerns of mainstream voters. There’s still plenty of time for a different kind of debate to reveal itself, but I’ve a horrible feeling this may be as good as it gets. In which case, whatever the outcome of the referendum itself, we’re probably doomed.
So as we brace ourselves for another referendum debate full of arguments so generic they’ve lost all meaning between two groups of intractable ideologues, I feel it’s important to end on an upbeat note.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, I’m almost certain we’ll all still be able to watch The Great British Bake Off.