The terms of the debate
It is essential that the Europhiles are not allowed to make the debate [on EU membership] revolve around economics. If they do it will effectively stifle meaningful debate. As anyone who has ever tried to present economic ideas to an audience of the general public will know it is a soul-destroying experience.
Take the question of how much of UK trade is with the EU. The debate will begin with the stay-IN camp saying something like 45% of UK trade is with the EU. Those wanting to leave the EU will respond by saying it is probably less than 40% because of the Rotterdam-Antwerp effect. They will then be forced to explain what the Rotterdam-Antwerp effect is. That is the point where the general publicâ€™s concentration is lost and the debate ends up proving nothing to most of the audience.
Although nothing is proved to the general audience by detailed economic argument, the audience will remember certain phrases which have considerable traction. In amongst the serious debating on the issue of trade there will be phrases such as three million jobs in Britain rely on the EU and dire threats about how the EU will simply not buy British goods and services any more. This is nonsense but fear is not a rational thing and many of those who vote will enter the voting chamber with fear of losing their jobs in their heads regardless of what the OUT camp says if the debate is predominantly about economics. Shift the debate away from economics and the fear-inducing phrases will be heard less often. If the big lie is not repeated often enough its potency fades.
How should those wanting to leave the EU shift the focus of debate? They should put the matter which is really at the core of the UKâ€™s relationship with the EU â€“ national sovereignty â€“ at the front of the OUT campâ€™s referendum campaign. Campaign under a slogan such as Are we to be masters in our own house?
Making national sovereignty the primary campaigning issue has the great advantage of it being something that anyone can understand because it is both a simple concept and speaks directly to the natural tribal instincts of human beings. Being a simple concept readily and naturally understood, it is a far more potent debating tool than arguments attempting to refute the economic arguments beloved of the IN camp. The fact that the natural tribal instincts have been suppressed for so long in the UK will increase its potency because most people will feel a sense of release when it begins to be catered for in public debate.
The appeal to national sovereignty has a further advantage. Those who support the EU are unused to debating on that ground. That is because uncritical support for the EU has long been the position of both the British mainstream political class as a class and of the mass media. That has meant that the contrary voice â€“ that which wishes Britain to be independent â€“ has been largely unheard in public debate for thirty years or more. Where it has been heard the response of the pro-EU majority has not been rational argument but abuse ranging from patronising dismissal of a wish for sovereignty as an outmoded nationalism to accusations that national sovereignty amounts to xenophobia or even racism. These tactics â€“ of excluding those who want to leave the EU from public debate and abuse substituted for argument â€“ will no longer be available to the pro-EU lobby.
The most threatening and energising subject relating to the EU for the general public is immigration. The public are right to identify this as the most important aspect of our membership of the EU because immigration touches every important part of British life: jobs, housing, education, welfare, healthcare, transport, free expression and crime besides radically changing the nature of parts of the UK which now have large populations of immigrants and their descendants.
The public rhetoric of mainstream politicians and the media is changing fast as they begin to realise what an electoral liability a de facto open door immigration policy is as the effects of mass immigration become ever more glaring. The argument is shifting from the economic to the cultural. For example, here is the The Telegraph in a leader of 25 March 2013:
The fact is that, for many in Britain (especially those outside the middle classes), it is not just a matter of jobs being taken or public services being stretched, but of changes in the very character of communities. Those changes may not necessarily be for the worse: as the Prime Minister says, Britainâ€™s culture has long been enriched by the contributions of new arrivals. But as long as ministers treat immigration as a matter of profit and loss, rather than the cause of often wrenching social change, they will never be able fully to address the grievances it causes.
This new frankness in public debate means that the OUT camp can use the immigration argument freely provided they keep the language within the confines of formal politeness. The subject will naturally dovetail with the emphasis on national sovereignty because the most important aspect of sovereignty is the ability to control the borders of the territory of a state. Judged by their increasing willingness to talk publicly about immigration, it is probable that the mainstream UK parties will be content to go along with ever more frank discussion about immigration.
The economic argument must be kept simple
It will not be possible to avoid economic arguments entirely. The OUT camp should concentrate on repeating these two facts:
- the disadvantageous balance of payments deficit the UK has with the EU;
- the amount the UK pays to the EU.
Those are the most solid economic figures relating to the EU. There is some fuzziness around the edges of the balance of payments deficit because of the question of where all the imports end up (whether in the EU or outside the EU through re-exporting), while the amount the EU receives is solid but it has to be broken down into the money which returns to the UK and the amount retained by Brussels. Nonetheless these are the most certain figures and the least susceptible to obfuscation by the stay-in side.
The best way of presenting the money paid to the EU is simply to say that outside the EU we can decide how all of it is spent in this country and to illustrate what the money saved by not paying it to the EU would pay for.
It will also be necessary to address the question of protectionist measures the EU might take against the UK if the vote was to leave. It is improbable that the EU would place heavy protectionist barriers on UK exports because:
1. The balance of payments deficit between the UK and the rest of the EU is massively in the EUâ€™s favour.
2. Although the rest of the EU dwarfs the UK economy, much UK trade with the EU is heavily concentrated in certain regions of the EU. The effect of protectionist barriers would bear very heavily on these places.
3. There are strategically and economically important joint projects of which the UK is a major part, for example, Airbus, the Joint-Strike Fighter.
4. the Republic of Ireland would be a massive bargaining chip for the UK to play. If the UK left and the EU rump attempted to impose sanctions against Britain this would cripple the RoI because so much of their trade is with the UK. The EU would be forced to massively subsidise the RoI if protectionist barriers against the UK were imposed. The EU could not exempt the RoI from the sanctions because that would leave the EU open to British exports being funnelled through the RoI.
5. The EU would be bound by the World Trade Organisationâ€™s restrictions on protectionist measures.
The economic issues which are not worth pursuing in detail because they are too diffuse and uncertain are those relating to how much the EU costs Britain in terms of EU-inspired legislation. It may well be that these load billions a year of extra costs onto the UK but they are not certain or easily evaluated costs, not least because we cannot in the nature of things know what burdens an independent UK would impose off its own bat. Getting into detailed discussions about such things will simply play into the hands of the IN camp because it will eat up the time and space available to those promoting the OUT cause.
Apart from the economic issues the stay-in camp will use these reasons for staying in:
- That the EU has prevented war in Western Europe since 1945. This can be simply refuted by pointing out that the EU was not formed until twelve years after World War 2; that until 1973 the EU consisted of only six countries, three of them small, and of only nine countries until the 1980s. Consequently it would be reasonable to look for other reasons for the lack of war. The two causes of the peace in Western Europe have been the NATO alliance and the invention of nuclear weapons which make the price of war extraordinarily high.
- That nation states such as the UK are too small to carry any real diplomatic weight in the modern world. That begs the question of whether it is an advantageous thing to carry such weight â€“ it can get a country into disastrous foreign entanglements such as Iraq and Afghanistan â€“ but even assuming it is advantageous, many much smaller countries than the UK survive very nicely, making their own bilateral agreements with other states large and small. It is also worth remembering that the UK has such levers as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (which allows the UK to veto any proposed move by the UN) and considerable influence in institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.
The above is part of an article first published at England Calling under the title, "The EU IN/OUT referendum: strategy and tactics for those who want to leave the EU".