Expertise is a valuable skill but one of the problems with experts is that all that knowledge can leave you unwilling or unable to persuade. If you think, if you know that X is the right answer and yet people persist in not agreeing, it is hard not to feel infuriated, not to feel that some combination of wilful stupidity and/or ignorance and/or bloody-mindedness is refusing to accept the obvious.
And it is easy from there to fall into the seductive – but ultimately fruitless – trap of attributing malign motives to those disagreeing with you. And yet the key to the art of effective persuasion or advocacy is listening to your audience, addressing what they want to hear and communicating with them in a way that resonates with them. Politicians often get this wrong – and bureaucrats even more so – not because the substance of what they are saying is necessarily wrong but because the tone is, because they are not listening to what concerns their audience and communicating in a way that makes sense to them.
How does this apply to those outside Britain – the EU itself, EU member states and others – looking on agog as Britain seemingly heads for exit – despite all the warnings and entreaties of countless experts?
- The myth of inevitability.
In life only death is inevitable. In politics nothing is inevitable. The triumph of democracy, of liberal values, of “progressive” values (however we define these) are not inevitable. They have to be fought for, over and over again, and the more we assume that it is self-evident that they will triumph, the less challenge they face, the flabbier we get at answering the question “Why?” The same applies to institutions.
Successful institutions can be surprisingly brittle and arrogant when asked to justify why they should exist in the form they do. So when Juncker says that it is not permissible to come to decisions which are outside the treaties, he comes across as legally correct but also irrelevant – the question now is whether the treaties are suitable for the times and circumstances of today, however right they may have been when first conceived and signed. Above all, it comes across as fearful: fearful that there is no good answer or no answer good enough for the British.
So rather than find a convincing explanation for why the treaties are a good thing now for Britain, the reaction has been – too often – to suggest that this is self-evident, that it is somehow illegitimate even to ask the question, that a “why” is simply not permissible. The EU is inevitable, it is a good thing, states should not even think of leaving and, if they do, they should be punished, as if they are naughty transgressors. But states – peoples – are not children. They can’t be told “Because I say so”. They can’t be told of the monsters under the bed who will come out if they don’t behave. They are entitled to answers which are convincing to them.
The EU is not inevitable. It is not inevitable that it will survive and be successful. It is not inevitable that it will be valued – or valued enough – by all its members. There is not just one direction of travel, however much one might like to pretend otherwise. And if the EU wants to survive with Britain in it, it needs to stop giving the impression that it thinks this referendum a tiresome impertinence, a sort of lese-majeste and more an opportunity to show (not tell) why it is good for us.
- Speak Human
Look at the 4 freedoms: people, capital, goods and services. Which is the odd one out? People. People have ties, connections; they belong to families and communities; they bring the promise of future generations and they come with the accumulated history of generations behind them. They have feelings. When peoples move, they change themselves, they change the places they leave behind and the places they come to. They have an impact, both good and bad or a mixture, on the people in the places they move to.
The person moving may feel free, depending on whether they are doing so voluntarily or because they have to to survive. The person who finds their home town changed, swiftly and without their consent, may not think of this as freedom but imposition. People are not just economic units, not just “new citizens”; not interchangeable units like cheese.
And yet this vital pillar of the EU is talked about just like that, as if individuals should simply have to accept movement, with virtually no effective limitations, as a given in order for capitalism to work effectively. As a price to be paid, in Mr H Benn’s words, for access to a market where profits can be made. (He might have been a 19th century mill owner talking.) Well, yes, up to a point.
But capitalism’s weakness has often been its failure to recognise the human consequences of what it claims to be economically inevitable, to care about who pays the price and who gets the profits. And the EU’s seeming failure to understand at any level the concerns which Britain has about free movement, both in terms of control and numbers, has led it to a stupidly rigid approach. The principle of free movement cannot be questioned said Mrs Merkel. Yes, it can. It should be. But if the principle is good, its practical application should change with the times.
Britain may vote to leave because at some level enough people feel, however stupidly and inchoately and wrongly in the views of the experts, that an institution nobly set up to avoid people fighting each other to murderous destruction, has changed to one which often seems wilfully and proudly indifferent to the human consequences of its own principles and policies.
My one – undoubtedly pointless – plea to the EU wallahs – should the Brexit campaign win is this. Resist the urge to view this as vulgar British hooligans trashing refined Continental restaurants. It may be that. But it is not just that.
Ask yourself why, after 43 years experience of the EU, a country as long-standing, as successful as Britain has been, a country which has contributed so much to so many over the centuries, even with all it cruelties, stupidities and inanities, a country which has, when it was needed, shown a rare moral courage which helped preserve Western civilization and allowed Europe to reinvent itself, has said “Thanks. But no thanks.” Ask yourself, as Cromwell, a man who challenged the inevitable divine right of kings, did: [Is it] “possible you may be mistaken?”