Jon Dean: Why In and Out campaigners are both losing EU debate

Prime Minister David Cameron launches the Conservatives IN Campaign at the ICA in London.

Prime Minister David Cameron launches the Conservatives IN Campaign at the ICA in London.

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OFTEN politics is seen as choosing between two sides of the same coin, or between two identikit white men in grey suits.

Not this time, though – the EU referendum really matters.

From the right to travel and work freely across Europe to being able to refuse access at the border to immigrants from EU countries, and the very future of Scotland as part of the UK, this choice on June 23 will have repercussions for all areas of British society.

Therefore it is more important than ever before that the debate is based on sound reasoning, a clear set of facts and figures, and political leaders on both sides who will accept the limitations of their argument.

Unfortunately, early indications show the referendum debate will be based on manipulation, empty sloganeering and flimsy figures.

This is a particular problem for the Leave campaign. Whereas Remain have a relatively easy offer to make to the British public – that things will stay largely as they are – those arguing for us to leave the EU have to convince the voting public not only that there will be significant benefits across the country after voting to leave, but that the downsides will be either non-existent or at least minimal and manageable.

In referendums, ‘small-c’ conservativism generally wins out. Therefore it will make more strategic sense for the Leave campaign to focus on first principles.

No matter the positives and negatives of seceding powers to Brussels, intellectualist opponents like Justice Secretary Michael Gove will argue that ultimately Britain should manage its own affairs and will be fine on its own.

On the Remain side we have already seen letters from business leaders and military generals, respectively, supporting David Cameron’s thesis that the United Kingdom is stronger and safer in Europe. But it is important to remember that these letters are not an impassioned desire to intervene from interested civic parties, but organised by 10 Downing Street, and strategically placed in newspapers to appeal to a certain audience.

Similarly, the figure of three million British jobs being reliant on the EU has already become a key part of the Remain campaign’s discourse.

While it is true that between three and four million British jobs are linked to trade with the European Union, there is little to no evidence these jobs will disappear if we were to vote to leave.

The dramatic fall in the value of the pound due to Boris Johnson’s support for the Leave campaign indicates certain economic instability is likely, but as with the myriad incorrect economic predictions at home and abroad since the financial crisis, it is best to assume nobody knows anything.

Last week, I asked a class of 40 undergraduate students how many of them currently felt they had enough information to make a clear decision in four months’ time.

None raised their hands.

Many spoke of being confused by the conflicting arguments and unsure of what to believe. These are young people willing to listen to ideas before making up their minds.

This decision will shape where they are free to work, who they are able to fall in love with and marry and the demographics of their local communities for years to come. How the Leave and Remain campaigns manage their information, and how effectively the neutral elements of the media are able to challenge, critique and amend their claims could be pivotal both to the result, but also to whether or not people feel inspired to participate.

These vital public decisions should give us some hope for the renewal of civic debate that everyone involved in politics claims to want.

The Scottish referendum in 2014 produced a turnout of 85 per cent, with a turnout of 75 per cent among 16 to 24-year-olds. Given that around only 40 per cent of young people voted in May, anything close to this would give us hope that when the country’s future is at stake, those making opposing arguments see their role as both campaigner but also as public educators.

While a high youth turnout would undoubtedly be good for the Remain campaign, we know that engagement breeds engagement. Whichever side triumphs in June, let the renewal of civic participation across the United Kingdom be a side aim of the two campaigns.

Jon Dean is a lecturer in politics and sociology at Sheffield Hallam University.

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