One down; and one to go. Scotland’s referendum is over and at this stage things are going reasonably well for the British state, provided that it makes a serious, determined and successful effort to reform itself. There are very solid grounds here for optimism.
What the Scotland referendum has shown is that we are just beginning what looks to be a much wider, and long overdue, process of constitutional reform, which encompasses not only the relationship of Scotland to the UK, but also the relationship of the other three home nations – England, Northern Ireland and Wales – to the UK; and, of course, the UK’s relationship to the EU. These separate debates are deeply intertwined; each one needs to be seen in the context of the others. Scotland’s referendum was ultimately about the shape, scope and powers of the British state; the same holds true for a UK-wide referendum on EU membership. Given these linkages, it is clear that the arguments for Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom have much in common with those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.
Although the question of Scotland has been settled for the foreseeable future, what is far less certain, however, is the outcome of the possible 2017 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. As has been the case for so many other national challenges in our long shared history, it’ll be of great help to have Scotland in the Union when the moment comes. In the case of the EU referendum this is because the Scots are more Europhile than the rest of the UK’s population. According to Professor Charlie Jeffery of the University of Edinburgh, the split between Scots who had a positive vs. negative view of the EU in 2013 was 43% to 27%, against 34% and 34% for England; similarly when it comes to an in–out vote, 48% of Scots would definitely vote to stay in vs. only 37% of the English. Although Scottish preferences are not a million miles away from those of the English, they are definitely more pro-EU, by at least 10 percentage points (and even more according to some polls), than their fellow Britons south of the River Tweed. This, in my opinion, is at least partly to do with the preferences of the Scottish elite (which is uniformly Europhile; probably because they are used to the notion of multi-level governance which is local, Scottish, British and European in that order), but it is also a function of the fact that for the man or woman in the street, Scotland is already well-catered for in terms of populist protest or nationalist parties in the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Scotland’s value to a UK-wide EU vote is important, but it should be borne in mind that Scottish electors totalled only 4,027,200 in 2013 out of the whole UK electorate of 46,139,900. Breaking this number down, 38,597,100 live in England and in aggregate are somewhat Eurosceptic; 2,297,300 live in Wales and tend to have similar attitudes towards the EU as the UK average; and, 1,218,400 live in Northern Ireland, which, incidentally, was found to be the most pro-EU of all of the components of the UK by a Gallup Poll in 2008.
Voters living in England will determine the outcome of any UK-wide EU referendum, but within England, of course, there are great differences in attitudes from locality to locality. In London, for example, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) took only 16% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament Elections against 32% of the vote in the neighbouring South East of England. Here we see that not only is it too simplistic to view ‘England’ as in any way a uniform political object on any issue (incidentally, eastern England tends to be more Eurosceptic than western England), but one should also be wary of reading too much into the results of the European Parliament Election of 2014 in the UK for a European referendum vote, not least because turn-out was so low, at 34%. Thus even if UKIP did top the poll in May 2014, barely one in ten of the total electorate cast their votes for them. An EU referendum is likely to be a matter of greater salience to the British electorate as they come to realise its importance in providing and safeguarding many things they take for granted. The UKIP threat needs to be taken seriously, but it should also be seen in its appropriate context.
Campaigners for Britain to remain in the EU should take heart from the analysis of the British electorate’s attitude towards the European Union drawn by Tim Haughton and myself in a recent edition of the JCMS Annual Review of the EU. A first point is that UK opinion of the European Union has been hugely volatile over the long term (1973–2009), including periods when the electorate was broadly pro-European, and periods when it was broadly anti-European. The great mass of voters (two-thirds of the electorate) could be said to be floating on the issue, with no strongly fixed views one way or another and are open to persuasion by either camp. Yet, interestingly, when it comes to the diehards (those who will not change their views under any circumstances), supporters of the EU are twice as numerous as Eurosceptics. As in Scotland, this could point to the existence of a silent majority. Time – and hard campaigning – will tell.
Before that period of campaigning begins – and a Conservative defeat in 2015 will probably just postpone an eventual EU referendum, such is the clamour today – in the wake of the Scotland vote, there can be no better time to take stock and reflect on some lessons learnt on how to campaign – and how not to campaign – during a prospective EU referendum, not least because both fights share the characteristics of a counter-insurgency that needs to be fought tooth-and-nail against the forces of narrow nationalism. Scottish nationalism was defeated (just) in the 2014 referendum. The far more dangerous threat of English nationalism will have to be overcome in a potential 2017 EU referendum.
This is an open cards exercise, so it’s worth stating at the outset that the lessons I have in mind are for those who want the UK to stay in the EU. I’m also assuming that a future Conservative government holding a referendum would be campaigning in favour of EU membership – this is a little bit uncertain, but it remains the most likely EU referendum scenario. If you want Britain to leave the EU, it’s fair to say you might as well stop reading now, unless you just want to annoy yourself. Here goes.
Lesson No. 1 – Don’t Hold a Referendum!
OK – this is perhaps not in line with the spirit of lessons learned, but it’ll do no harm to drive home the most important argument. Referendums are terribly divisive, pesky things that will inevitably leave one part of the electorate deeply disappointed and dissatisfied. The old British politics of winner-take-all no longer seems to match the public’s preferences, if indeed it ever did.
Voters have changed and expect their views to feed into the debate, somehow, whether or not they are on the winning side. In the Scotland referendum, one of the principal arguments advanced by the Yes side, its trump card you might say, was the notion that there would be ‘no more Tory governments’ in Scotland. There a number of things at which Alex Salmond cannot be beaten. One of those things would be smirking; and a second would be chutzpah: in the 2010 UK General Election 35.6% of Scottish voters cast their ballot for the Conservative–Liberal Coalition to only 19.9% for the SNP. In fact a mere 3.2 percentage points more of voters in Scotland voted for the SNP than the hated Tories who won 16.7% of the popular vote. Alistair Darling had a go at making another version of this point in the first televised debate, but he came across as irritated and shouty when set against Salmond’s customarily emollient manner, and I fear that his sound, lawyerly argument was lost. Elsewhere in the UK, I remember when I taught students at the University of Sussex that one of their main gripes in the Blair era was that none of the parties reflected their personal political preferences (revolutionary socialism, anarchism etc.). I gently tried to remind them that they had perhaps misunderstood the question being asked of them when they stand in front in a voting booth during a General Election. The question is not: what is your dream party? Rather, it is which of the following would you most like to form the next government? If voters don’t understand that this is how British politics works, then British politics itself has to change. Referendums don’t help that process of change.
Then there is the problem that referendums reduce incredibly nuanced and complex matters questions down to a yes–no dichotomy that doesn’t suit the most knotty political questions. Moreover, a glance at the history of the referendum will reveal its shady origins as a Bonapartist instrument designed to provide a measure of legitimacy to the ‘authority from above; confidence from below’ way of doing politics and government. In other words, the referendum was designed to produce overwhelming support for dictatorial powers; matters like membership of the EU or Scottish independence don’t fit this picture.
And lastly, the evidence of all EU referendums across the 28 Member States (France and the Netherlands in 2005; Ireland in 2001; Denmark in 1992 etc.) is that the question that most voters will really be asking themselves during a given referendum is ‘do I support the government that is asking me this question?’ And, almost anything could go wrong in the UK during run-up to an EU referendum which would ensure that the answer to this question would be a resounding ‘No’ (for example, a re-run of the 2009–10 UK parliamentary expenses scandal, which would for certain provoke a ‘plague o’ both your houses’ reaction from the public).
Referendums should have no place within a serious political culture. And yet we are stuck with them, so we might as well proceed to the second lesson.
Lesson No. 2 – Fighting Against Populists Necessitates Different Kinds of Weapons
A lesson from the Scottish referendum that is equally valid to a British EU referendum is that when battling against populists there is little point trying to reason with them or the hard core of their supporters. When it comes to the EU, the hard ‘antis’ form a group for whom the EU would not be acceptable even if every regulation were rewritten and ‘the other member states agreed to pay the Queen’s weight in gold in annual tribute’ as the Economist put it in 2013. What is needed therefore is a big tent appeal to the middle ground of British politics; this will require both a positive campaign portraying the pro-EU group as the reasonable person’s choice; and, a move to paint the UKIP lot as swivel-eyed loons, which should not be difficult, provided that the pro-EU group is not going to be squeamish. This, of course, is not terribly sporting, but dealing with UKIP is tantamount to a counter-insurgency action. Both the overall strategy for the campaign and the tactics needed deliver it must be different to politics-as-usual.
Since it is anticipated that the entire British establishment will be in favour of staying in the EU, it is worth taking advantage of this to put the kind of leading question on the ballot paper that that invites the desired result – there are rules on this sort of thing (and quite right, too) but the evidence of Scotland, where voters were asked ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ shows that there is a huge amount to be gained from sailing as close to the wind as possible. The rules will probably not allow for the question ‘do you agree that we should cooperate with our European friends and allies?’ but something along those lines will help. And since the precedent has been established in Scotland of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote on pretty dodgy legal grounds, knowing that they are more likely to support the EU, they should get the vote in an EU referendum too.
And unless the entire establishment (I’m not counting here the 100 or so Tory MPs who are opposed to UK membership of the EU, only the sensible remaining 200 members of the Conservative parliamentary party plus the Labour, Liberal Democrat parties, and the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish parties) is united in favour of EU membership, we shouldn’t even begin to think about a referendum.
Lesson No. 3 – A Positive Message of Change in the EU is Needed as Well as Negative Warnings about the Risks of Leaving
The Scottish ‘No’ campaign was run for much of the campaign solely on the basis of attempting to scare the electorate into voting against independence for fear of the consequences. Adverse consequences will also be important in the pro-EU campaign. What, for example, will happen to the 1.8 million Britons who work or just live in the rest of the EU? What will happen to the 2.34 million EU citizens living in Britain? It needs to be made clear that in the first instance they would all lose not only their right to work, but also their automatic right of residence. Economically, voters need to be explained fully the risks for foreign investment in Britain, including the threat that many foreign-owned manufacturers (for example, Nissan UK in Sunderland) will relocate to the single market. At the very least, Britain will lose its favoured position as the destination of choice for investors seeking opportunities in Europe. Risks to the predominance of the City need to be fully explained, but not over-emphasized, since the financial services industry remains unpopular amongst the public at large. And the danger of withdrawal from cooperation with Europe on organised crime and terrorism, where British lives may be needlessly placed in grave danger, also needs also to be underlined.
Yet whilst underscoring the risks and consequences of a possible EU departure will be an important element of the referendum campaign, focusing exclusively on this kind of ‘negative encouragement’ was a serious mistake on the part of the ‘No’ camp in 2014, which Alex Salmond quite rightly picked up on with his line that the Scottish electorate being bullied and patronised by a distant London elite.
Suffice to say that a pro-EU campaign must begin with a positive vision of a reformed Britain, in a reformed EU. Keep it vague, but very bright and cheerful.
Lesson No. 4 – Don’t Get Bogged Down in Endless Cost–Benefit Analyses
Scotland’s referendum shows that cost–benefit analyses are for civil servants and businesspeople, not for politicians and popular politics. Remember: the campaign is not pitched at the readership of the Financial Times. They are going to vote for EU membership anyway. Of course, the pros and cons are an important part of the debate but too many of the assertions made by one camp or another can be refuted or undermined. Witness here the endless toing and froing between the Yes and No camps on Sterling during the Scottish campaign. Bright and breezy captures the middle ground. And a final point is that a decision to stay in a constantly evolving organisation such as the EU cannot simply be reduced to a simple cost–benefit analysis: rather it is a choice about our country’s overall political orientation, and the campaign should reflect this.
Lesson No. 5 – Emotional Messages and Mood Music Work
Scotland’s referendum has demonstrated that emotional messages work. Yet this will be harder with the EU than it was with Scotland’s 307-year old Union with England and Wales (with Northern Ireland, it’s 214 years, depending on when you start counting). Since the outbreak of the anti-EU insurgency in the UK, Britain’s pro-Europeans have tended to huddle in their bunkers, shaking their heads ruefully, and lamenting that pro-Europeanism is doomed because you can’t fall in love with a single market. They need to get out of their bunkers and take the offensive. Europe is much, much more than a single market.
It’s possible for the pro-Europeans to have an emotional message, but there is a need for some fresh thinking. Here the challenge is to make voters feel warm and a little sentimental about what the EU stands for, rather than about what it has done, or not done. And for goodness sake don’t use the EU’s own arguments and words – a British vernacular when speaking to a British electorate is essential (come to think of it, don’t let Euro geeks anywhere near the campaign – they will spoil the message). Towards the very end of the Scottish referendum credible efforts were made in this direction by Gordon Brown (a masterful performance), David Cameron (an honest and heartfelt appeal) and, perhaps, very, very discreetly, by the Queen (by reminding the Scots that they should ‘think very carefully’).
Pro-EU campaigners will have to tap into the politics of identity, where, with forethought as well as due care and attention, a hugely powerful emotional message can be brought to bear by connecting Britishness with Europeanness. Two points are important here. First, voters living in England (as is true elsewhere, of course, in the UK too) do not tend to have exclusively British or English identities. And second, Charlie Jeffery’s 2013 England and its Two Unions report for the IPPR showed that a strong sense of British identity equates (logically, when you think about it) to more pro-EU attitudes. Voters who feel themselves to be ‘English not British’ would vote to leave the EU by an overwhelming 72% to 17% – even those who are ‘more English than British’ also want to leave by 58% to 28%. Yet those who are ‘more British than English’ would vote to stay in by 45% to 37%. The goal here is to move voters from the second camp to the third, which should be possible given the fluid nature of the British identity.
Maximizing all efforts to make voters feel British and pitching the pro-EU campaign firmly on British values should help to get the pro-Europeans off to a strong start. As I noted in my previous blog post on Scotland, the list of British (yet not necessarily English) values that most would identify with provide ample material for the construction of a big tent: liberalism, magnanimity, decency, openness, resilience, representative democracy, respect for other peoples’ traditions, cooperation, fairness, justice, Habeas Corpus, an independent civil service, loyalty to our friends and allies, willingness to take up the cudgels for the underdog, voluntarism, freedom of speech and much else besides. The message needs to be that the best place Britain can embody and promote these values today is in the European Union.
Above all what is needed is a clear message that sets up the EU as something that good and decent British people vote for, and that – without necessarily saying it – leaves only mean-minded folk to vote against EU membership. The message of the pro-EU camp needs to be that this campaign is about the proud and tolerant traditions of Great Britain overcoming the boorish ignorance and xenophobia of Little England.
Lesson No. 6 – Take credit for the EU both where it is due and where it is not
Scotland’s referendum demonstrates neatly what has been known already for a very long time: voters love the social safety net. Since voters across the whole UK are deeply attached to the welfare state, social protection and, especially, the NHS, it is worth trying to set up the debate as a campaign between, on the one hand, a group of anti-EU free-wheeling capitalists who seek to undermine treasured British social institutions (which we share with other EU member states), and on the other hand, the reasonable, pro-European voice of British decency striving – and succeeding – to hold onto community spirit, solidarity and togetherness, united with our European friends in an uncertain world.
And it doesn’t matter that the EU has rather little to do with health (beyond public health), if the ground can be captured early on, it should be easier to hold it against the onslaught of the antis. When it comes to welfare, the EU plays a more significant role. There is room here to set up the debate effectively in such a way that voters can be scared by the prospect of losing cherished rights such as a fair deal for the disabled, minorities, clean and safe working conditions and so on. Given that the ideological preferences of UKIP for flat taxes, scrapping employment legislation and tearing up health and safety standards are at the opposite end of the preference spectrum from those of the general electorate, this should not be too hard.
Lesson No. 7 – Business and Trade Union Support Matters
Getting the voice of business out to endorse Scotland’s continued participation in the UK worked, even if it came very late in the day. Trade union voices in support of EU membership, and against a race for the lowest standards for employment rights and welfare, will also count for a great deal – such workers’ rights arguments need to come from them and to be expressed powerfully.
Lesson No. 8 – When it comes to Migration: Best Foot Forward!
Migration into the UK is potentially the Achilles heel of the pro-EU campaign. It’s not, on the face of things, popular with the electorate. Yet the paradox here has been that migration is generally more unpopular in areas with few migrants than elsewhere (the same appears to be true in other countries, such as France). According to the 2011 UK census, London, for example, then had a population in which was only 45% White British, but for the most part there does not seem to have been a political backlash within that city against migration; quite the reverse, it is popular and its Mayor, Boris Johnson, is probably the only senior Tory to be unambiguously pro-migration in a party that has tried – and failed – to cut migration into the UK to an arbitrary level of ‘tens of thousands’ before the next General Election in 2015. Something clearly is out of line here, and it appears likely that the metaphysical fear of migration looms larger as a source of discomfort to the electorate than the tangible reality of migration in Britons’ lived experiences.
Perhaps what is really happening is that the migration issue (for which the EU is conveniently held responsible) serves as a catch all proxy for voters’ legitimate underlying concerns and fears, which in turn stem from tangible instances of government-failure and market-failure. There is, it is clear, in many places, a lack of good-quality housing at a decent price, a shortage of school places, and, everywhere there is a lack of resources in healthcare. But these outcomes are really the result of a collective failure to plan for, and build, enough houses and schools – and the abdication by the British state of its responsibilities in this area. Our lack of adequate healthcare resources is the product of welcome increases in natural life expectancy and the problems of an ageing society. Populists tend to pick on immigrants because they can’t always speak up for themselves. True Britons stand up for the underdog – and this lesson must be at the heart of the pro-EU campaign.
Instead of letting UKIP catch out the pro-EU campaign on migration, here again it is best to be bold and capture the ground on which the migration debate will be held early on. Rebranding ‘migration’ as ‘freedom of movement’ will help too. The freedom of movement message is part of the much broader slogan that the pro- or anti-EU debate, just like the debate on the future of the United Kingdom, is about Great Britain vs. Little England. Beneath the surface and beyond the cameras, Britain’s anti-EU parties often turn out to be pretty nasty and racist. As Hugo Rifkind so pithily put it ‘if UKIP aren’t racist, how come so many racists seem to like them?’
Most British people like to be on the side of decency, fairness and kind-heartedness. British people also want to do what’s right – they won’t want to be branded or thought of as mean-minded or intolerant. It can be proved beyond a realm of doubt that our more recently arrived neighbours make a wonderful contribution to British life through volunteering, caring for the elderly and so on. Above all, a pro-EU campaign must tap into the British love of the welfare state by reminding the British public that there would be not enough nurses, doctors and – particularly – care home staff without migration from Europe. The personal insights of casual empiricism sometimes drive the point home most effectively. As one colleague put it, ‘my mother, who’s 94 and still lives “independently” at home is in fact supported by twice-daily visits by carers who are all Polish, and their manager is German. The only English carer my mother has had (for two weeks or so) failed to get her up one morning and was never heard of again!’ Pitching these real experiences against ‘UKIP myths’ would be a good start.
Of course, the economic case for migration in what has traditionally been a liberal political and business culture is self-evident, but it still needs to be brought home in all parts of Britain, and in all sectors of the economy. How many farmers, for example, can bring in the harvest without migrant workers? From hospitality to higher education, the entire British economy is heavily dependent on the work ethic of our more-recently-arrived friends and neighbours. And the message here must be that Britain’s world-leading industries need to employ the best talent – wherever it comes from – in order to grow and create more jobs and prosperity for the United Kingdom as a whole.
Lesson No. 9 – Celebrity Endorsement is Valueless
There is a serious campaign to fight in which the ballots will be cast by millions of our fellow citizens. And the collective judgement of the British public is usually wise. A British campaign to stay in the EU should not waste time on pursuing celebrity endorsement. No one voted ‘No’ in Scotland because of Eddie Izzard or JK Rowling, although their support for the campaign probably did no harm and their donations to the fighting fund were welcome. The Queen is an exception to this rule, but (1) she is the Head of State, not a celebrity; and (2) I don’t think she can be used in this campaign.
Lesson No. 10 – Bring Alex Salmond Onto the Pro-EU Team
If Salmond can turn 65–70% support for the UK and 30–35% support for independence into 55% for the UK and 45% for Scottish independence, he’s a good man to have on the team in a tight spot. The British state has traditionally dealt with its defeated enemies in one of two ways. The first was to hang them. Happily, we don’t do this any more. Apart from the fact that hanging was vicious and barbaric, it also won the British state few friends. The second, more liberal, magnanimous and sporting tradition has been to rehabilitate our enemies, to shower them with honours even – and then to find them a useful little job to do. Could Salmond be next in line?