A positive narrative which combines economics and emotion is neededby Peter Kellner / December 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
As David Cameron wrestles with the politically huge but economically trivial issue of in-work benefits for new immigrants, Lord Ashcroft has performed a signal service by publishing the results of a huge (20,000 sample) and detailed survey of British attitudes to the European Union. As this is a subject I have analysed before and will doubtless do again, this blog will concentrate on a particular but, I believe, vital aspect of the debate.
Ashcroft asked a number of questions that broadly divide the public between optimists and pessimists. Two broad themes emerge:
1. Pessimists generally outnumber optimists. By 53-47 per cent, we think Britain is on the wrong track rather than heading in the right direction. By a much larger margin, 62-38 per cent, we think Britain will be a worse country for most people than it is today. And by an alarming 71-29 per cent we think that, “with the way economy and society are changing”, there will be more “threats” than “opportunities” to improve our standards of living.
2. There is a link between these attitudes and our stance on the EU. The more optimistic we are, the keener we are on British membership. The link is not absolute: there are fair numbers of anti-EU optimists and pro-EU pessimists. But the correlation is strong enough to suggest that one of the drivers in the coming referendum campaign will be the ability of the two sides to exploit the fears and expand the hopes of the large number of people—at least one-third of the electorate—who have yet to decide finally their referendum vote.
For the Vote Leave campaign, this is all obvious stuff, and underpins their campaign already. Their core message is that the EU is to blame for many of our woes—immigration above all—and that the UK will be prosperous and successful once again if we regain control of our laws and borders.
For the Stronger in Europe campaign, the challenge is greater. Rightly it stresses the risks of Brexit. What is missing—or, at any rate, not sufficiently stressed—is a positive vision of the benefits of remaining in the EU. Ashcroft’s figures remind us how worried we are as a nation; the flip side of this is that the rewards are potentially huge for the kind of leadership that restores our optimism. Vote Leave seems to understand this better than Stronger in Europe.
What kind of message could EU supporters offer? There are some obvious specifics: the fall in phone roaming charges (a result of EU rulings), our ability to access cheap or free health care when we holiday in France, Spain, Italy or Greece, our ability to work, live and retire in another EU country, EU-wide co-operation to fight terrorists and cross-border criminals, and so on.
However, I doubt whether, in campaigning terms, the total impact of these things will match the sum of the parts. A bigger message is needed. In particular, when the negotiations are complete and David Cameron announces his support, as he surely will, for remaining in the EU, he needs to be able to complete two sentences—not just “Brexit is a bad idea because…” but also “continued membership of the EU is a good thing because…”
So, how should that second sentence go? One option is to talk about the single market and its benefits; another is to say that in or out, EU rules will apply to Britain, so it’s better to be at the table protecting our interests and our jobs. But something more is needed: a story about how after centuries of conflict, and with Britain often taking the lead, Europe has reinvented itself as a peaceful, broadly democratic continent that enshrines the best human values, not perfectly but more completely than any other continent. Thus economics and emotion should come together, in a narrative that seeks to tackle the phenomenon laid out so clearly in Ashcroft’s poll and makes the case for British pride and optimism in an interconnected world.