As the Brexit disaster unfolds, pro-Europeans should be clearing up. Here's what they're doing wrongby / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
It can sometimes feel as though Brexit has sent Britain into meltdown. The economy is faltering, with Britain falling from the top of the G7 growth table to the bottom. The government is in a state of crisis, hopelessly divided over what future relationship it wants with the European Union. Worst of all, the Good Friday Agreement is under threat as Brexit hardliners seek to bulldoze all obstacles in their way.
So you might think “Remain” campaigners would be having a field day, yet still public opinion remains firmly stuck in the middle. The latest polling average gives “Remain” a lead of just 3 per cent.
What’s going on here? Why isn’t the Remain cause opening up a double digit gap? Why can’t it capitalise? The question is a pressing one; the answer is not immediately obvious. Still it is worth probing and asking just what’s going wrong.
There are as ever likely to be several factors at play. One potential explanation is that absent a general election or another referendum, voters simply aren’t paying attention to each new crisis. They have tuned out. Another is that the full costs of leaving are not yet clear, meaning many British voters are still happy to take a gamble on exit. There is likely to be some truth in each of these.
But I am increasingly wondering if one of the biggest problems doesn’t lie in the messaging coming from the Remain camp itself. It’s just a theory, but look back over its tactics since the referendum and some telling clues start to emerge.
Ever since the Brexit vote, Remain-supporting politicians and activists have pounced on every scrap of bad news. They have leapt on leaked government impact assessments showing the economic damage awaiting Britain outside the EU—just look at that bus pictured above. They have hammered home new reports that thousands could lose their jobs. They have pointed to weak British growth as proof that the Brexit vision is folly. I receive half a dozen emails a day from pro-European organisations making points like these.
The temptation of such an approach is obvious. But could it actually be doing more harm than good? Perhaps so much negative campaigning from the Remain camp is limiting its appeal.
One takeaway from the 2016 referendum was that pessimism is not always an effective way to win people over. Back then, a majority of politicians lined up to warn of the harm that a Brexit vote would inflict, as did an overwhelming majority of experts, from Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund down. Brexit would plunge Britain into crisis. A recession was all but guaranteed.
The campaign, as we know, failed miserably. Yet those who would prefer Britain to stay in the EU are now repeating the same mistake. Again the focus is overwhelmingly negative: on economic fallout, on government incompetence. It may be that the public simply don’t believe it—either way it is hardly inspiring stuff.
Remainers might consider whether it is time they told a more positive story—one which extols the virtues of EU membership.
The case is waiting to be made. There is no shortage of benefits to being in the European club. It makes travel between countries simpler, meaning young people can more easily go interrailing with their friends or study abroad for a semester. It facilitates collaboration in science, meaning British researchers can better develop the technologies and medicines of the future. It commits Britain to upholding human rights. The list goes on, yet how often do you hear prominent Remainers cite examples like these?
In the coming weeks, as various Brexit crunch points approach, Remain campaigners are set to give another push. “Best for Britain” will launch a six-week advertising blitz. “There will be some billboards but there’ll also be a lot of digital spending too,” its CEO Eloise Todd told the Financial Times. Another pro-EU pressure group, Open Britain, looks set to step it up a gear also.
The crucial question is whether these campaigns will make an active case for EU membership, or just warn of the costs of leaving. If the former, they may finally start to get somewhere. If the latter, it may amount to doubling down on a failed strategy.
One thing is certain. It is just over a year until Article 50 runs out, which means they haven’t got long to win the British people round. The stakes couldn’t be higher.