Monday, May 20, 2013

EU referendum: hostages to fortune

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Former EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson was in full flow on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday. But what he said was of very little importance in the greater scheme of events, any more than anyone really gives a damn about what "dead sheep" Lord Howe has said.

What might stick, though, is Mandelson's jibe about UKIP whom he called the "UK Isolation Party". That is just the sort of snide slur that can gain a certain currency, and it struck me at the time that it was far from spontaneous. This has been worked on by Mandelson and his little friends, all part of the classic technique of denigrating the opposition. 

If it does stick, though, it will be because there is a grain of truth in it. One just has to look at the comment threads on the online Booker columns, and other threads on EU-related issues. Very visible and voluble are the self-identified UKIP members who demonstrate by their comments that their only interest is immediate withdrawal from the EU, whatever the cost, and whatever the damage caused. 

This we also see on our own forum, the relentless advocates of unilateral withdrawal who are so obsessed with leaving that they would destroy any chance of a negotiated settlement and cause endless damage to British business and other national interests. 

What these people don't seem to realise, though, is that our withdrawal will almost certainly depend on us winning a referendum. And it is there, where the vote is soft that we will be relying not on the politically committed, but on the swing voter, who will have no settled view on the EU issue. 

What people also need to realise is that political engagement is a minority occupation. Only a tiny and diminishing band of people follow politics. The "mainstream" media is in fact purveying a minority view, and the bulk of people who get their news only from television rarely give the bulletins their full attention. 

Yet, it is these people upon whom will be relying to get us out of the EU. They are people we haven't spoken to yet. These are people who don't read the comments (thank goodness) and who don't read the blogs. Many of them don't even vote in most elections. 

But it is these people who will be most affected by the scare tactics of the europhiles, and the claims of people like Mandleson, who revel in claims that we are isolationists and "little Englanders". And they will be given plenty of opportunities by the BBC and the legacy media to make their points. 

Then, it will we our own rabid, swivel-eyed loonies, foaming at the mouth about "traitors" and "illegal treaties", German domination and all the rest, who let us down. 

Their squealing for immediate repeal of the European Communities Act, regardless of the damage caused, will seem to confirm the slurs from the Mandelsons of this world, giving their claims credibility as they seek to tar us all with the same brush. 

Thus, as eurosceptics, we need to be thinking hard, not only about our arguments, but how they play with the politically uncommitted. What might sound good to the faithful, or stack up the "recommends" on the comment threads, are not necessarily the arguments that are going to convince the swing voters. 

To do that, we are going to have to be careful what we say, and compromise. What many committed eurosceptics could end up doing, in promoting their preferred courses of action, is alienating – or frightening - ordinary people to such an extent that we end up losing a referendum. 

As it stands, it is going to be difficult enough to win. There is no need to make it impossible.