A legend persists about the 1975 referendum that confirmed the UK’s continued membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC); Britain voted to stay in an economic union back then, it is often stated, but the European Union has since become a political union. Britain didn’t vote for that.
I am not especially bothered whether the 1975 vote was disingenuous or not (some say the politics was not hidden, but conversely the EEC was mostly referred to as the “Common Market” then). What concerns me is the notion that is currently prevalent that 1975 was somehow a trick, that the British people were somehow duped into ending up in a political union when they voted for some sort of economic arrangement. A case can of course be made that a common market without common (political) standards just ends up as a race to the bottom, but that requires an understanding of the interplay between politics, regulation and economics – a degree of nuance that tends to not survive in political debate in the UK.
This state of affairs – that 1975 was somehow a trick – has two implications for the ‘Remain’ campaign for the 2016 or 2017 referendum that was launched yesterday. The first is that it should not simply couch its arguments in terms of economics – the European Union is more than that. Just look at the EU struggling to deal with its migrant crisis if you doubt that. Secondly, this means there is a strong onus on the ‘Remain’ side to be honest, to be seen to be telling the truth. You were duped in 1975, the antis will cry, and they are duping you again! When even I, as a pro-EU person, see through their twisted vocabulary and blog about it, how are already suspicious voters going to react?
The Britain Stronger In Europe message feels like it has been crafted by PR people to make a message fit public opinion. It is not a message that accepts the reality of the European Union, and tries to persuade the British public of the merits of that. As a result the campaign feels fake, somehow fraudulent, and hence surely will not succeed. If the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election teaches us anything, it’s that people actually value honesty and authenticity.
Those values are awfully lacking on the “Remain” side’s campaign just at the moment.
I’m feeling my age with “deja vu”. in 1975 I was president of my university union and active in local politics as well as student ones. I voted “yes” (and still have the badges and posters) much to the disgust of the local Labour activists who were of the Bennite persuasion (now known as corbynistas). So far in 2015 I see a complete re-run with the same political alignments (far right and far left versus the centre), the same misrepresentations, the same bending of “facts”, the same sweeping under the carpets of awkward issues. The “ishoos” to use Benns’ term have evolved: migration being the main one, but the core arguments put forward (and not put forward )by the Outers last week and the Remainers this week are identical as in 75. A referendum is the bluntest form of political action: no room for nuances or details. Did anyone care about exactly what Wilson had renegotiated? Not really. Does anyone care about the exact changes Cameron will come back with? Not really. Quite bluntly it comes down to the TV impact of the main voices: May, Johnson, Farage on the out and on the remain……. don’t mention Blair, Mandelson,