Missing the point. How the Remain campaign is failing

Missing the point. How the Remain campaign is failing

Why we should stay in Europe according to Alan Johnson Labour BBC News YouTube

Alastair Meeks on the Remain campaign

With roughly 100 days to go to the referendum, the Remain campaign is no doubt feeling cautiously optimistic.  While the renegotiation of terms has not inspired, Remain has had a much better air war than Leave to date.  David Cameron has vigorously warned of the manifold dangers that he has identified if Britain should leave the EU.  A stately procession of the great and the good is being lined up to walk past us, each gravely prophesying that if we leave EU now, we’ll take away the biggest part of us.  So far we’ve heard from – among others – Professor Stephen Hawking, a third of the FTSE-100 bosses, the Governor of the Bank of England and the US Secretary of State.  Barack Obama is standing by ready to be deployed as necessary.

Meanwhile, the Leave campaign is either absent from the airwaves or complaining about the unfair way in which Remain is pressing its case or, absurdly, wasting time challenging the bona fides of Remain’s star supporters.  It is hopelessly fractured and has not even reached the stage of disagreement about its strategy, since they have not coalesced to the extent of being able to identify different strategies.  As a result, Leave is being defined by its opponents.  It looks increasingly as if Leave’s main chance of winning depends on events unfolding in a way that make undecided voters give up on the EU as a going concern.  That doesn’t look like much of a strategy.

Remain are evidently going to stick to a strategy that they believe will secure victory for them on 23 June of hammering away at the risks of taking a leap in the dark by voting to leave the EU.  So far as the vote is concerned, I expect it to work, with the distinct possibility of a very sizeable numerical victory.

A victory of this type would be similar in flavour to the type of victory that Better Together won in the Scottish independence vote.  It would be founded in the short term concerns about what a decision to Leave would mean rather than in any long term advantages of EU membership.  That means that after a Remain victory, nothing will have been done to address the longstanding grievances that are widely held about EU membership.  That in turn means that a Remain victory will settle nothing in the longer term.

This illuminates why the referendum is being held: for reasons of internal Conservative party management rather than for great reasons of state.   The Conservative party might indeed be managed but the great question of Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU will remain unresolved.  The wound will continue to fester.

The referendum vote was never going to be won and lost on grand principle.  The Remain camp can and does fairly point out that the Leave campaigns have made no attempt to sketch out a coherent vision of what a Britain outside the EU would look like.  Yet the Remain camp might have sought to make a coherent case for Britain’s continued membership of the EU.  It has not.

What might such a case have looked like?  Here’s one take.  I should state right away that this is not the only rationale that could be made for continued EU membership, nor am I particularly advocating it myself.  This is just one possibility.

The Leave camp metaphorically paints itself in woad and rides in scythed chariots.  The Remain camp would need to accept that the British public don’t have the emotional desire for continental unity that many in continental Europe have that stems from a century of division and destruction through hot and cold wars: Britain has not suffered an invasion in centuries.  Any case for continued EU membership needs to appeal to different emotions.

My suggestion, for what it is worth, is that the case could be made that being a leading member of the EU is the role that Britain found after it lost its empire, that it has enabled Britain to find peace with its history and to learn to look forward again.  Remain could plausibly argue that Britain was in relative economic decline until it joined the EEC and since then has done much better, benefiting from greater openness to European markets and other ways of doing things.  Building on that, Remain could then argue that staying in the EU would continue to offer these advantages of mooring Britain’s identity and continuing the British tradition of offering a calm, confident, outward-looking face to the world, drawing a contrast with Leave’s erratic, brittle and querulous tone.  It could have presented continued membership of the EU as the mature choice for a mature country in an imperfect world with imperfect options.

Would this argument, or other possible positive arguments about the long term benefits of EU membership, have persuaded the public?  Who knows?  No such long term appeal is being made.

It may well be that Remain campaigning on lurking doubts will lead voters to play safe and vote to stay in the EU.  Voters are more likely to feel better about doing that if they can intellectually justify that to themselves.  Without such a figleaf, voters are likely to feel ashamed or regretful of that choice.  That shame might well find expression in future political movements.  By focussing on the vote rather than the argument, the Remain camp risk winning the first and losing the second.  And isn’t that rather missing the whole point of a referendum?

Alastair Meeks

Alastair is one of the main guests on this week's PB/PM TV Show. Check it out here

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