20th Feb 2020

Column / Brexit Briefing

Leach the poison from the political well

  • A slogan of the Leave campaign is projected onto the White Cliffs of Dover (Photo: Reuters)

Regardless of the motivations of her killer, the tragic and barbarous murder of Labour MP Jo Cox has underscored how the political well in Britain, and across Europe, has been poisoned. If you poison the well, everyone gets sick.

In the circumstances, there is a strong case for postponing Thursday’s referendum. A period of introspection into how our political discourse has become so debased and hate-filled would have been a far better use of time.

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  • UKIP's leader Farage and his 'Breaking Point' poster (Photo: Reuters)

Unfortunately, campaigning was only halted for 48 hours, although both the Remain and Leave camps have promised a more positive tone in the final hours of their campaigns, a belated attempt to leach some of the poison out of the debate.

It’s not before time.

If Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking point’ poster plunged new depths of racism and fear-mongering, the Remain campaign has scarcely been a demonstration of positive campaigning.

To hear David Cameron and George Osborne on the campaign trail in recent weeks, you would think that the EU is a toxic mixture of the iniquitous and incompetent, with the single market its only redeeming feature.

When you are engaged in a battle to persuade voters to keep their faith in a political organisation, this is, to put it mildly, a risky strategy.

And it hasn’t worked.

Basing your pitch to voters on the argument that the EU is crap but we need the single market, is like a boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back and with his boot-laces tied together.

It is also deeply uninspiring. The rationale is that voters can identify more easily with the rational economic case of maintaining single market access, but it’s hardly romantic.

Britons may be proud rather than offended by Napoleon’s description of them as "a nation of shopkeepers" but as another Frenchman, former European Commission chief Jacques Delors, put it in 1988: "No one falls in love with a market".

The most effective slogan for the Leave campaign has been its exhortation for Britons to "take back control". It requires no qualification and, as a concept, is hard to disagree with. Not only that, it makes the possible economic costs of a Brexit seem like a small price to pay.

Justice minister and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove has spoken of "buccaneering Britain", characterising the Leave campaign as being for the "little guy", while pro-EU forces are dominated by the likes of global banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. In Gove’s words “we should not be on the side of the undeserving rich.”

Terrible missed opportunity

Leave offers "project hope", he says, while all Cameron and the Remain camp can offer is scaremongering.

If Gove’s "project hope" claim is stretching credibility, that the pro-EU Remain camp has shied away from idealism is a missed opportunity.

Why not emphasise the liberation offered by freedom of movement?

Why not explain that successive UK governments led the successful expansion of the EU to take in the former eastern bloc countries?

Why not talk about the agency workers’ directive, which gives temporary staff the same minimum rights on pay, hours and holidays as full-time employees? In an era of "zero hours" contracts and flexible labour, the social protection provided by this law benefits thousands of Britons.

These policy achievements are easy to relate to, and ideologically driven.

Trumpeting only the benefits to business of single market access also plays to one of the criticisms made of the EU; that it serves multinational companies not workers.

Sigh of relief

A generation ago, the safety-first approach used by Remain might have worked.

Voters trusted politicians more, and Britain’s most popular, and least divisive, politicians in 1975 were in the pro-European Economic Community campaign. The ideological outriders: the Conservative’s Enoch Powell and Labour’s Tony Benn were leading voices in the Out camp.

But as the Donald Trump bandwagon in the United States has shown, the age of deference to "experts" in politics and economics is over.

In fact, every time a foreign leader, the Bank of England governor, or independent economists and academics make a rational, evidence-based plea that Britain is better off staying in the EU, support for Leave goes up.

At the end of an interminable referendum campaign, in which hyperbole, exaggeration and flat-out lies have masqueraded as debate, it’s still not too late for a positive case for EU membership or, for that matter, leaving the bloc, to be made.

Fail to do so and, regardless of the result, millions of Britons will breathe a sigh of relief on Friday morning.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer. He will write the "UK referendum briefing" column during the 23 June referendum campaign


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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