Why and what. Why should Britain leave the European Union and what kind of relationship should it have with its erstwhile European partners?
These are the two questions at the heart of the referendum debate that is set to dominate the political landscape this year and shape it for decades to come. For those who favour the change option, Brexit, clear and compelling answers to both are vital. People need to know why they are voting to end more than 40 years of British membership of the EU – and what will take its place.
So far, the rationale for change and the vision for the future are anything but clear. And nor have they been translated into simple, memorable messages that the public can readily grasp and retain.
On its website, Vote Leave, the Brexit campaign group with the greatest level of support among Westminster politicians, political advisers and wealthy businessmen, publishes a 36-page “manifesto” setting out the case for waving goodbye to Brussels. This is how it summarises its case:
Why should we vote to leave?
Technological and economic forces are changing the world fast. EU institutions cannot cope. We have lost control of vital policies. This is damaging. We need a new relationship. What should it be?
We negotiate a new UK-EU deal based on free trade and friendly cooperation. We end the supremacy of EU law. We regain control. We stop sending £350 million every week to Brussels and instead spend it on our priorities, like the NHS and science research.
We regain our seats on international institutions like the World Trade Organisation so we are a more influential force for free trade and international cooperation.
A vote to ‘leave’ and a better, friendlier relationship with the EU is much safer than giving Brussels more power and money every year.
Strikingly, the summary makes no mention of immigration or the migrant crisis, the two issues that are the biggest drivers of public hostility to Europe and that most glaringly expose the failure of the EU to manage its affairs in an orderly and coherent way and live up to its pretensions to be a nascent superstate. In the full 36-page document, immigration is mentioned briefly only twice.
Instead, the argument for departure is presented in sterile, technocratic terms. With the running theme of “regaining control”, the EU is presented as backward-looking, slow-moving and cumbersome. It is hostile to technology, and entrepreneurship and damaging to jobs and growth, not least because of its devotion to the euro. It is costly – £350 million a week – and heavy-handed and anti-democratic with its insistence on the supremacy of European law.
In short, many sound reasons are given by Vote Leave for quitting the EU, but no one concise and simple set of compelling reasons that might clinch the argument for out. It is hard to see how the clinical trials directive or cuts in the EU’s Horizon science budget (both cited in the document) are going to grab the attention of working class voters in northern UK towns and motivate them to turn their backs on Brussels.
Immigration/the migrant crisis is regularly cited by opinion polls as the number one concern facing the country. Yet Vote Leave is reluctant to mention it, partly because it has concluded that “swing” voters are not motivated by it and partly, one suspects, because its leading lights regard banging on about immigration as vulgar and best left to the likes of Nigel Farage. This, of course, rather overlooks the rise in support for quitting the EU picked up by the polls over the summer at the height of the migrant crisis.
Indeed, the most fundamental argument of all – that Britain thrived as an independent, sovereign state for 1,000 years without sub-contracting part of its governance to a foreign power – is also ignored again because restoring sovereignty is judged not to appeal to the swing voter.
As for what the world would be like for a Britain outside the EU, no one has produced a clear picture, commanding widespread Eurosceptic support, of the free trade and cooperative arrangements that advocates of Brexit want to see – and the public could be persuaded to endorse. The Scottish referendum, in which the then SNP leader Alex Salmond could not explain what would replace the pound in an independent Scotland, shows the dangers of such imprecision.
The EU referendum is still at least six months away and there is time to refine the key messages of the Leave campaign, work out a way of responding to anxiety and anger about immigration/the migrant crisis, and build a sharper picture of an independent Britain retaking its place among the family of nations. But that will require strong political leadership and a willingness among the various Eurosceptic factions to bury petty differences and rally around agreed common positions.
Speculation abounds about Cabinet level defections to Brexit. They cannot come soon enough.