Within two years the United Kingdom will have a referendum to decide whether or not it stays in the European Union. Despite a fair amount of noise in the media, the serious political campaigning hasn’t started yet. But the Ins seem to have the edge. This is an interesting turn of events.
It helps to put your passions to one side to make any sense of the emerging campaign. I heard one commentator suggest that the electorate is split into three roughly equal shares: those who are firmly for In, those firmly for Out, and those who are floating between the two. I don’t know how accurate the numbers are (the firm Ins sound a little high), but it’s a good way of looking at it. The campaign will be decided by the floating third, and these voters do not have the emotional investment in the issue that of either the Europhiles like me, or the Eurosceptics. The arguments the committed supporters on either side find convincing will cut little ice them. The In and Out campaigns will have to concentrate on the sort of arguments that will sway these uncommitted voters, and not those that have already made up their minds.
I think that this is giving the Europhiles the edge. Until recently the Eurosceptics have had the field to themselves. They dominated the media with their passionate arguments about sovereignty, over-regulation, and the general incompetence with which the EU is run. Europhiles were in despair; we never heard somebody coming up with a really convincing argument about why we should stay in – just some rather soft stuff about trade and peace and international prestige. We were losing the argument, it seemed. The Outs raced ahead in the polls. But they also became over confident in the strength of their own arguments. The Europhiles, on the other hand, were forced back to a more realistic assessment what they had to do – and they realised that the main thing going for them was sheer bloody inertia. Passion would not win the day for them.
But the Eurosceptics, or too many of them, still think that their passion and argument is what is needed. But this is no good for the cold, hard job ahead. That they can’t agree to form a single umbrella organisation shows that they haven’t understood this – discipline among the passionate is hard. It reminds me a little about the fable of how to boil a live frog. The story is that if you throw a frog into hot water, it will just jump straight out of the pot. But if you put it into cold water and slowly heat it up it will not notice until too late. I hope nobody has tried this out on real frogs, and it almost certainly wouldn’t work if they did. But makes an important point anyway.
The Eurosceptics have been placed in a favourable media environment, like the frog in cold water. But ever so gradually it has become less favourable. The turning point was probably when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, decided to call his bankbenchers’ bluff and hold a referendum. Then it was clear that leaving was no longer a theoretical proposition, and the quiet voice of inertia started to speak. It was certainly no great push by the In camp in the media. The polls slowly but surely turned against the Outs, though in the last month the Ins have dropped back, after Europe struggled with the refugee crisis. Too many Eurosceptics haven’t noticed how the climate has changed, and are failing to adapt.
This is especially evident with attitudes to Mr Cameron’s “renegotiation” of the UK’s membership terms. This clearly an important part of the In strategy. He plans to flourish some impressive achievements to the electorate as a clinching argument to the floating voter group. This could be a decisive move, but only if he manages to exceed expectations. So a subtle Out campaign should be trying to raise those expectations. Instead most of them pouring scorn on the whole exercise. The Europhiles are egging them on by also playing down expectations – but that is in their interests.
To be fair, some of the Outs understand the problem. Lord Bamford, a notorious Eurosceptic, has reserved judgement on Mr Cameron’s renegotiation, and is wisely holding his fire for now. This was flagged by some of the Eurosceptic newspapers yesterday. That is better than slagging off the whole exercise, but still not quite the position they should be taking.
But things are far from hopeless for the Outs. Three things might work for them. The first is if they can focus anti-establishment anger on the EU. The establishment – mainstream politicians and big business leaders – will largely rally behind the Ins. And yet the public is suspicious of these figures. Anti-establishment-ism played well for the SNP in the Scottish referendum, though it still wasn’t enough. But that was a very different situation.
The second thing that could play well for the Outs is panic about immigration. Free movement rights within the EU is one of its great glories, and has been of enormous benefit to Britain – and Britons make use of it themselves with glee. But immigration makes most Britons nervous. If this nervousness is raised to panic proportions, the Ins have no really convincing answer. Unfortunately it makes no difference whether or not the panic is actually relevant to Britain’s membership of the EU. The media storm over migrants at Calais earlier this year had nothing to do with British EU membership (the situation would be just the same, perhaps worse, if Britain was out) – but it still dented people’s confidence in EU membership.
And the third thing is chaos within the EU itself. This might arise from the ongoing refugee crisis, or from another Euro zone crisis. It makes no difference that both these crises show that Britain’s already-negotiated opt-outs allow us to stand on one side. It still reduces the comparative advantage of staying in over leaving.
For all that the Ins need to hold their nerve. The best case for In is an unspectacular one. Britain has prospered by and large in its years as part of the EU (even if you can’t prove it would have been worse off out); EU processes are deeply embedded into our way of life – as the passport controls when travelling to EU countries shows. Leaving the EU would create a colossal mess which would, incidentally, put the Union at risk. It is up to the Outs to make a convincing case that life would be actually better outside. Not that things wouldn’t change much. And in concrete terms that affect daily lives, not in terms of abstract ideas like parliamentary sovereignty. That will be more than hard for the Outs to do.
So that is why I’m not that bothered that the launch of the In campaign this week was a bit anaemic, and is chairman a bit colourless. The task in hand is bit like that of a defence lawyer: not to prove his clients’ innocence, but to make the prosecution stew. in its own contradictions. Like that boiled frog.