Britain is facing a referendum on membership of the European Union. Scots had a similar referendum, on independence, which took place in September 2014.
Here a supporter of both the Union and the European Union asks what lessons there are for the ‘In’ campaign from the ‘No” campaign: what it got right and what it could have done better.
One: Don’t postpone the vote.
When is the referendum on EU membership actually going to take place? This is a crucial decision.
In my view, the sooner the better . The talk is of June 23. There has been humming and hawing and Nicola Sturgeon called for a longer gap between the Scottish elections and the EU referendum, fearing perhaps that Holyrood’s thunder will be stolen. But the Scottish elections are expected to be a walkover for the SNP and as such they won’t be that exciting anyway. Scottish voters will be able to cope with two votes in just over a month. Holyrood elections in May would be a trivial reason to hold off. I don’t think the “In” campaign has anything to gain from a long run-up. It would in all probability help the underdog – the ‘Leave’ camp.
The two-year referendum campaign in Scotland seemed to create a momentum that saw the ‘Yes’ vote climb up the polls week by week. This was, at least in part, because every time the independence question was given air time or print space, the case for and against got equal billing. This in some ways gave a false picture – for instance most medium or large businesses were opposed to independence but many people were unaware of that as the small group of pro-independence business spokespeople got equal prominence.
At the time the referendum date was announced, support for independence seemed quite marginal. Putting to one side the merits or otherwise of the case, simply the attention given to the case for independence may have strengthened support for it.
Crucially, too, the advocates of independence were persuasive and passionate and they made the most of their time in the spotlight.
Two: Don’t be afraid of being negative where it’s appropriate.
The ‘No’ campaign in Scotland was branded ‘Project Fear’ by the ‘Yes’ side. ‘Yessers’ claimed the hope, and the No side got the fear. There was a macho element to this which meant that ‘No’ voters were at times accused of being cowards. I was asked more than once if I got a white feather with my ‘No’ vote.
The main architect of “Project Fear” was said to be Alistair Darling, who was branded a “doomsayer’ and caricatured as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. This was unfair. He may not be a ‘roll out the barrel’ type like Nigel Farage. But he has not been irrationally pessimistic in the past. He does have form when it comes to financial predictions, especially gloomy ones. Famously, he predicted the financial collapse of 2008. He also told the Conservatives they should not be complacent about the indyref. He was right about that too.
Then he wandered around Scotland for two years telling anyone who would listen that the oil price might fall and that the SNP plan was ‘fantasy economics’. Right again. Sometimes, it’s important to remember that one man’s canary in the coal mine is another man’s tweeting fearmonger.
So what does Darling think about the Euro ref? He argues that staying in increases stability and that Brexit is a risky alternative with few likely benefits. If his view were to be expressed as a slogan it might be something like: “Vote ‘Stay’. It’s the stable course!”
Three: But be about the heart as well as the head.
It’s important to engage with the emotional aspect of something like this. For a lot of people it will come down to a question of how the idea of being in or out of the EU makes you feel? Would you feel a sense of regret that Britain was no longer part of this great institution? Would you feel trapped in a Little Britain with its borders locked down? Or would you feel a sense of relief that Brussels was no longer able to stick its Eurocrat’s nose into British business?
Alex Salmond has often said that in the end, the positive wins out in politics. And indeed we saw with the increasing momentum of the ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland that they had a story about building a better, fairer, stronger Scotland that got people motivated and active.
As someone commented at the time, while the ‘Yes’ campaign was rushing down a hill shouting ‘Freedom’, the ‘No’ campaign was standing a little behind saying: “Have you considered the financial implications of this?”
It wasn’t until the eve of the referendum when Gordon Brown had his Heathcliff moment and delivered a passionate speech supporting the Union and the right of Scots to feel proud of it and to defend it, that the ‘No’ campaign really found its beating heart.
The European Union too is a big idea. It has its imperfect reality but at its core it’s a dream of concord and alliance.
Gordon Brown is among the big hitters putting a positive case for remaining. In a recent speech, he said: “There is a stronger, patriotic view of Britain’s best future that is different from those who glory in us standing apart and want us to be wholly separate, defiantly independent of others.
“It is the patriotic vision that affirms that Britain is not the Britain we know unless we are outward-looking, unless we are engaged with the continent and unless British values – tolerance, liberty, fairness and social responsibility – play a leading role in shaping Europe and helping Europe to lead in the world.
“Our destiny can never be some kind of bit-part player semi-detached on someone else’s stage or a bystander hectoring from the wings. We must at all times be setting the agenda in Europe, bringing people together in Europe and championing change in Europe.”
Four: Respect your opponents.
It’s worth remembering that the people in the opposite camp are – mostly – democrats and that there are people on your own side who are equally, if not more, unpleasant than the nastiest of your opponents.
There was intimidation and even violence during the last days of the referendum campaign in Scotland. Lots of ‘No’ voters said they felt too intimidated to speak out. But despite this, I was aware that the scariest people were definitely on my side.
The thing about a binary choice like yes/ no or in/out is that it can be very polarising. You end up on the same side as people you may have seen as enemies and on the other side from people you love.
The way to navigate this is to remember – although as the vote approaches this is hard – that most of the people on both sides care about the future and want what they think is best. But if the campaign is close, people will fall out over it.
Novelist Denise Mina said after the indyref that anything that was said in the last fortnight before the vote should be forgotten as we all went a little crazy. Hang onto your hats.
Five: Don’t underestimate what’s at stake.
Europe may not be perfect but it could be worse. Within my lifetime and I am by no means old, several countries in Europe have emerged from dictatorship: Poland, Spain, Greece have all struggled under the yoke of oppressive government that crushed their human rights.
Outside Europe it is even worse: Russia has lapsed back into autocracy; in China if you step out of line the government may have you shot and then sell your organs for transplant on the open market in its idiosyncratic blend of communism and capitalism. As for what’s happening in Syria, it would make a heart of stone bleed. Wouldn’t coming out of the EU now amount to rocking an unsafe boat in a rough sea?
What are the pros of a Brexit? They seem fantastic, by which I mean, a fantasy. What problems would it solve? Some of the gripes against the EU, around laws and regulations such as the four freedoms of movement or the Common Agricultural Policy, seem petty or simply wrong-headed.
Recently I re-watched the movie Casablanca, set in a north Africa full of refugees from Europe. Rick loses Ilsa when he gets on the last train out of Paris.
To paraphrase Rick, rows about regulations don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The European anthem is Ode to Joy. Play it, Sam (Cam).
Photo courtesy of Rob Bruce