A couple of weeks ago I attended a debate in London with the title “Richer out of Europe?” organised jointly by The Federal Trust and Global Britain; each side fielded three speakers including former Commissioner Peter Sutherland and Kate Hoey MP. I was a profoundly depressing experience, there was no debate in the sense of an exchange of views and argument but rather a swapping of slogans stemming from the two sets of speakers inability to give any credence to the others points of view. Assertions were tossed out that had no basis in fact and there was no attempt to engage with the complexities of the subject. At the end the audience, about 80 strong and roughly split between pro and anti Europeans, was asked to put up their hand if anyone’s mind had been changed in the course of the evening; not a single hand was raised. I reflected that I had been listening to the same sterile arguments for over 40 years and nothing has changed.
Current polling suggests that were a referendum on Britain’s EU membership to be held today a hard core of pro and anti voters who are ideologically committed would cancel each other out leaving a rather larger group – over 40% – undecided and probably confused; the future of our country for many years ahead will depend on how they decide to vote. Had they attended the debate in London they would have probably been even more confused than before. Unfortunately our modern media driven politics leaves very little room for rational argument; everything however complicated has to be boiled to a few short sentences and victory goes to the side who can come up with the most eye-catching (and extravagant) slogan; this may make for exciting political theatre but it is a very bad basis for making vital decisions.
During the Scottish referendum, much was made of a new sense of political engagement and the enthusiasm which drew people to hundreds of local meetings where the issues were apparently thrashed out. I suspect that these meetings were revivalist in style in which participants were treated to a rant – for or against independence – which played to their instinctive prejudices rather than their reason, this would explain the closeness of a result that left no one particularly satisfied and certainly has not determined the issue. It would be a tragedy if the same thing happens with regard to Europe.
If as seems likely we are to have a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, it is vital that we find a method of engaging the electorate in a proper debate that will help them make up their minds in a rational and rigorous manner that does justice to the importance of the issue. Voters must be treated as participants in the decision-making process not as consumers of a particular set of preconceptions. There is no simple answer but I hope that the Europeans at least will devote much more attention to small scale meetings with affinity groups throughout the country, without cameras, involving discussion as opposed to gladiatorial combat; BBC Question Time is a very bad model. Equally we need to find a new narrative which is positive and forward looking not rooted in old shiboleths and which addresses voters’ genuine hunger for objective information. Universities and schools could play an important role in providing neutral fora.
Of course much of the problem stems from the very nature of referenda, it would be much better to leave these decisions to our elected representatives who are elected on a comprehensive political platform to take decisions on our behalf; sadly our political institutions have become so degraded in the public mind that that is no longer a realistic possibility.