We are a few weeks into the referendum campaign. Arguably the most important vote for British people in over 40 years, what have we learned? Perhaps more importantly, what are we yet to learn?
Naturally, the parameters for early debate would be set by the Prime Minister. Beforehand, we were told that we would have the choice about staying in a “reformed” European Union.
Reform amounted to some tinkering around welfare payments with a promise that Britain would be able to opt out of the ‘acquis communautaire’, the drive to ever deepening union. Whatever has been achieved at Council of Ministers level has yet to be ratified by EU member states. Was the promise false?
Cameron’s campaign had a head start. He knew that he would be championing the cause of Remain. Revelations have emerged that in fact he was building up support, the evidence being dated 8th February in a reply, 11 days even before his “reform” negotiations were complete. In practice, he has had 6 years to build up his arsenal of dubious evidence.
It was not until 14th April that the Electoral Commission published its decision, which of 3 alternative groups should lead the Out cause. The decision was to designate Vote Leave, fronted by Boris Johnson who, ostensibly at least, had not made his decision in which way to go until 21st February. At the time, Johnson denied that he would take a leading role.
That Electoral Commission decision effectively threw two Conservative Old Etonians and Oxford graduates against each other. Were we in for a balanced debate representing a broad cross section of British society? The UKIP based Go faction has been marginalised.
So the campaign began, arguably ahead of schedule with £9.3m worth of leaflets outlining the “government” position. With its early start the Remain crowd were able to dictate the content of early exchanges. The lines were drawn on the economy, safety, strength and incomes.
Both the Labour party and Liberals are ostensibly pro Europe but on the whole, are strangely quiet. Perhaps this is a planned tactic with the next election in mind? Certainly, Corbyn in the past has voted against steps to further integration. Farron is clear in his views but has refrained from his repeating his inaugural conference speech, where he branded the Leave camp as “little Englanders”.
So how does the Remain argument translate?
Firstly, the extra time has allowed the Remain side to develop support. This has come from 150 Royal Society members (out of 1,653) felt we should Remain. Of Britain’s economists, 200 say we should Remain. Quite how many economists there are in the UK, perhaps several thousand, the rest did not sign.
From the international stage, Obama made a splash by relegating Britain to the back of the queue for trade deals. He conveniently omitted to mention that he would not expect Britain to be back of the queue for military support in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Neither did he put Britain at the back of the queue for a Trident replacement or the purchase of American fighter aircraft.
The popular view is that Project Fear has begun. If we leave, inflation rises, unemployment rises, exchange rate drops, incomes fall, Putin and Daesh are dancing in the streets, World War 3 will break out. Surely it couldn’t get much worse? Incidentally, EU trade sanctions against Putin are estimated to have hit Russian GDP by 1-1.5% which puts the wilder claims into perspective.
The economic views seem at first sight to be repeated by a variety of supposedly independent bodies. Of those, at least the International Monetary Fund and Institute of Fiscal Studies have quoted a barely credible Treasury report, the Treasury being stripped of its forecasting role by the very same Chancellor who advocates the Treasury model.
There is a sad absence of a positive message. The biggest objection is that we don’t know what Out looks like. That is hardly surprising, the Leave campaign has yet to derive a consensus to decide for sure but there is a serious point, the government of the day can decide.
So what of the Leaves?
There is a view of what Remain looks like. As yet, that particular fight has to be taken to the Remain camp. Strangely, the German white paper on defence, as revealed in the Financial Times, has not been flagged as a significant debating point.
The 5 presidents’ report from the EU has not been capitalised on. The Leave side have not picked up on shaky ground, that the direction of reform in the EU is towards further integration.
The Leave camp has not picked apart the harsh realities that the only currency unions that have provided success are those that include political integration. Given the late start, the Leave’s have been unwilling or unable to take the fight of what Remain looks like with the associated uncertainty that integration brings.
Instead, they have been left with the open goal to miss, that of immigration. It has been an ironic set up, that those who argue to prevent Eastern EU citizens can be dubbed as racist. Ironically, Britain remains able to control immigration by those from the Commonwealth Indian sub continent, from Africa and from the West Indies whose citizens’ sacrifices are strongly represented on the Menin Gate and war graves across Europe.
The Leave campaign as it stands have been unable or unprepared to challenge some basic spin, a classic example being the portrayal of trade figures such as 44% of our exports go to Europe but less than 10% of EU exports come to Britain.
In practice, this is an argument easily refuted. Prior to EEC membership, less than 25% of British exports went to the current EU. In terms of value, British imports make a net injection of, by the latest figures, £8billion per month into EU economies. Percentage and value are different beasts. More EU jobs rely on trade with Britain than vice versa.
There are many arguments left to explore. How would the flow of manufacturing jobs from the UK to the EU core or cheaper fringes change either in or out? Are trade deals with Europe worth more than trade deals with the Commonwealth and new friends in South America, Asia and globally?
Which trade model would suit Britain best? Should we decide our own with a deficit that our EU partners would want to continue?
There are decent arguments on both sides, perhaps the most convincing for Remain being that an extreme British government can be neutralised by Europe, the most convincing for Leave being that British voters can help shape our own future.
Despite the head start, Remain flounder in presenting a positive message. Since one of the arguments is whether it is the EU or NATO and the UN that have kept peace in Europe, please forgive an analogy. Remain are fighting a rearguard action, seeking to minimise casualties, akin to Dunkirk in 1940.
Leave have 4 weeks rather than 4 years, to form the sort of alliance that can provide a vision for victory. Their own D (for democracy) Day is June 23rd. There is time yet for them to come up with a positive vision to capture the imagination of an outward looking nation.
Ultimately, Electoral Commission rules, which supposedly provide for a fair fight, have stifled planning, Leave having to fight a guerrilla war so far. The vote will ultimately be decided by those currently wavering. It seems to be a straight choice between fear and freedom but can either side provide a popular vision?