First an apology. I haven’t been posting much on this blog in the last few weeks. This is for two reasons. First life is intervening, in the form of school governance duties and London election work (administrative rather than political). But also because I am experiencing severe performance problems with my website, which are entirely mysterious to me. Having tried a number of things I have now migrated to a new hosting company which is both cheaper, and billed as a WordPress specialist, and so better able to provide the technical support I need. It does seem to be working better already. Strangely enough yesterday I had an email from my old hosting company (5Quid) to say that it was being taken over by my new one (TSOhost) and would be migrating anyway. It may help that I have got in first. Still I now feel free to post again.
The big political story of the moment is the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, which is due on 23 June. I want to offer thoughts on how the campaign is faring.
The first thing to say is that it is not an edifying experience. I have heard it suggested that regular public referendums help educate the public on political issues. That may be the case in some countries, but it is not how it works in Britain. I learnt that from the 2011 campaign on the Alternative Vote. No argument was too spurious to field. The public found the “raucous” mudslinging enjoyed by the press more engaging than any attempt to grapple with the issues. Public understanding of electoral systems advanced not an inch; even quite respectable, educated people still say that it was all about proportional representation. And so it is this time. No argument is too spurious. Much easier to tackle the man rather than the argument. It is in this context that we must judge the progress of the two camps.
Leave scored an early goal when two senior Conservatives, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the London Mayor Boris Johnson came over to their side, after rumours that they wouldn’t. Personally I find it hard to take either of these politicians seriously, but they are clever men, and have followings. They gave the Remain camp respectability and gravitas (in a funny sort of way with Mr Johnson – but he’s a serious politician) that they other wise lacked.
Leave scored again, in my view, with a coherent and well-chosen core message in the first weeks, supported by some effective sound-bite arguments. This is quite remarkable since their campaign was and still is the more chaotic, with rival camps eager to dominate the argument. This shows some strong political instincts on their part. Their slogan “Take Control” gives a reassuring flavour to their proposition, in spite of it leading the country into a daunting political space. Two soundbite arguments stand out. First is that the gross contributions made to the EU (alleged to be £350M a week) could easily be spent on other things, specifically the NHS. This is nonsense of course, since most of the contributions come back into the economy in one way or another. Spending the money on the NHS would mean taking it away from farmers; the contributions end up being spent several times over with this sort of reasoning. And, of course, the financial effect could easily be swamped by bigger economic developments. No matter; all this requires explanation, and nobody is interested in stopping to listen to complicated explanations. The second soundbite argument is a more defensive one: which is that the UK’s trade deficit with the EU means that the UK can dictate trading terms, because otherwise those German exporters would get upset. Of course that only lasts as long as the trade deficit itself – and don’t we want to fix that? Even so, in the first weeks of the campaign this line of argument has been quite effective at neutralising Remain’s claims that the country will lose access to EU markets.
Meanwhile, Remain’s efforts seemed to fall flat. They tried to promote the idea that there would be short and long term damage to the economy. Leave called this “Project Fear” , which I thought was a mistake (drawing attention to the opposition’s claims), but it seemed to do the job. Steadily the polls started to drift Leave’s way. They had started with a Remain majority (which undermines my football metaphor a little – perhaps the campaign should be looked at as a return leg with Remain already 2-0 up from the previous one). A week or two ago the polls looked neck and neck – though phone polls (usually considered more reliable) showed a Remain lead, this was shrinking.
But this week Remain have pulled a goal back. This came with a weighty Treasury report suggesting that the economic costs to the UK of leaving, short and long term, would be very high indeed. The convenient headline figure was £4,300 per family – no doubt just as spurious as Leave’s headline numbers, but what the hell? This wasn’t news particularly, but it seems to have struck home. Why? Well it was weighty, and more objective observers, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, consider it to be fundamentally sound in its analysis. But it also laid out in stark clarity the disadvantages of each of the various alternative trading arrangements. Again this is not new, but it had authority. It is the strongest intellectual argument for Remain, since each of the alternatives either has mighty drawbacks, or leaves you wondering what the point of leaving the EU would be, if you are still paying contributions and signing up to free movement of people.
That this move struck home was plainly evident from the Leave camp’s response. It was angry and panicky, and went for the man (George Osborne the Chancellor in particular – and economic forecasters in general). But they really didn’t want to take on the substance of the Treasury’s argument. Leave fielded their heaviest hitter, Mr Gove, but his economic arguments were based on hope rather than substance, and he quickly tried to move the argument on to different ground. To do so he promoted his strange and a anachronistic ideas about Britain and its historical destiny, which will resonate with few. He accused the Remain side of treating the voters like children – but that felt like the pot calling the kettle black. As Martin Wolf says, “Avoiding needless and costly risks is how adults differ from children.”
Remain’s next step will be to use US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to promote his support for Remain. Mr Obama has star quality in this country, if not his own, and it will undermine the optimistic picture painted by Leave of life outside the EU. Leave are already panicky about it, suggesting his views are hypocritical because he would never recommend restricting US sovereignty. But that is to suggest the countries are equals; in fact Britain is roughly the size of California economically; it is universally understood by Americans from Mr Obama down the California is better off in the USA than independent. Remain should score the equaliser. The polls are already moving back their way.
But it’s not over till it’s over. Leave can certainly pull the contest back. Their strongest suit is the country’s anxiety over unrestricted migration from EU members, which can be used to promote all kinds of fears, from job security to terrorism. This is a genuinely open contest with at least a third of voters are not truly convinced by either side. And we haven’t even reached half-time.