Tuesday, May 14, 2013

EU referendum: "splitters!"

Peter McKay in the Daily Mail today suggests that eurosceptics would not be demanding a referendum if they thought they'd lose it. They would, he writes, be playing a longer game, softening up public opinion by publicising the iniquities of the EU.

The mistake that McKay makes, though, is in assuming that "eurosceptics" are a homogenous group with a common aim, rather than a rag-tag bundle of groupuscules, with more discord than the People's Front of Judea.

On the matter of a referendum, there is not even any agreement as to the nature of any referendum that should be held, or when it should be held, and there most certainly is no consensus on whether we could win a straight "in-out" referendum. This blog is very far from alone in asserting that we could win and, therefore, we are indeed playing the longer game.

Those who have watched the clip from Monty Python (above), will note with delight the parody of small group politics, with John Cleese (of the People's Front of Judea) declaring that, "The only people we hate more than the Romans is the f*****g Judean People's Front".

The cry of "splitters" thus resonates throughout the land, as each groupuscule declares itself the custodian of the one true faith, condemning the heretics and dissenter, seeking to condemn them to outer darkness. Far from fostering a debate, the intolerance of many of these groups is such that they assert that dissenting voices should not be heard.

No more so is this heard than from the tiny claque which holds itself to be the guardians of the flame of freedom, they who assert that the only way to regain our "sovereignty" is to repeal the European Communities Act. It is this tiny band of malcontents that holds that Article 50 is a "trap", or even worse.

The trouble is that, if we assume that the first step towards withdrawal from the EU is winning an "in-out" referendum, without which there is nothing, then it seems to make sense that the entire weight of the eurosceptic "movement" should be devoted to winning the referendum.

Necessarily, this means crafting a message which will appeal to the largest possible constituency, including the vast majority of the electorate who do not read the newspapers, do not engage in political discourse and who, increasingly, do not even vote.

Here, the vast sum of experience of fighting referendums suggest that the dominant driver will be thestatus quo effect, with people tending to shy away from uncertainty. And, with that in mind, we have already experienced a taste of the europhile campaign, with the emphasis on "FUD" (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt), as a means of convincing people that they should stay within the warm embrace of "Mother Europe".

Remarkably, though, there is a voluble faction within the eurosceptic community which also seems to want to rely on FUD, and in particular, maximising the uncertainty attendant on our leaving the EU.

This is the faction which would eschew Article 50 and have us repealing the European Communities Act, on the back of a declaration that we have unilaterally abrogated the treaties. Assuming then that the EU would not take any "retaliatory" action against us on the matter of trade, it seems that the newly sovereign UK would then embark on a series of negotiations with the EU, to determine the nature of its ongoing relationship.

Bizarrely, anyone who does not agree that unilateral and immediate withdrawal is the winning strategy, is branded as a "europhile", a tool of the establishment, or even worse.

However, at the risk of being called that ultimate of epithets, a "splitter", we have to say that the crucial element of any winning campaign is to offer a "soft landing". People are far more inclined to risk "letting go of nurse" if they are reassured that the unknowns have been addressed, and their effects contained.

What we would prefer individually, then, is of less relevance. While the prospect of immediate withdrawal, and rolling out the coils of barbed wire in the cliffs of Dover, might have its attractions, the key to the adoption of any strategy must be the assessment of how it will play with what Spinelli called the "swamp" – the uncommitted middle ground.

These are the people that matter, and the evidence indicates that they will look first and foremost for reassurance that short-term interests will not be adversely affected by withdrawal. If we cannot give the necessary reassurances, or there are too many uncertainties, the voters "hold onto nurse". We lose.

And there, we can do without the "splitters". As far as is possible, we need to be able to present a common front. The opposition will seek to project the most extreme "eurosceptic" stance as representing the whole – something the BBC is very good at. The uncertainties of an immediate withdrawal are a gift to the opposition, and we cannot afford to give them the game.