Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Honest debate has become impossible

Against my better judgement I bought The Independent on the way in to work this morning (purely for Ralph Steadman's front page piece on his old buddy Dr Gonzo). Flicking through the rest, I spotted the most inane leader headline I've seen for a long time:

Europe's leaders need to learn from Spain's referendum if they are to win the EU vote

Now, call me a cynic (maybe my old Euroscepticism started to resurface for a bit), but my first reaction on seeing that was "what, learn to keep your populations ignorant of what the constitution entails, bombard them with propaganda, and try to convince them that the result is so absolutely guaranteed that none of the buggers actually bother voting?"

Actually, the piece is arguing "Spain, of course, was always exected to be the most pro-European of these countries [holding referenda]. Naturally, say its critics, because it has benefited most from the subsidies. This is unfair... If anything, Spain lost out most in terms of voting powers from the new constitution. That it has thrown itself so completely into ratification of the treaty is a tribute to the enthusiasm and energy of its new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero."

With this bizarrely simplistic revival of Whiggish "great man theory", the Indy (which frequently does deserve the derogatory "Europhile" epithet, even I'll admit) then argues that, for Britain to replicate Spain's yes vote, what is needed is for Tony Blair to start campaigning vigorously for it now. Sod the General Election. Sod the UK's upcoming EU presidency. Blair should concentrate on spreading the good news about the beneficial aspects of the EU constitution.

Bollocks, should he. If he wants a yes vote he should leave well enough alone. After the last few years of lies and distortions eminating from Downing Street if Blair tells the country that something is good for them everyone would be entirely justified in believing precisely the opposite. In fact, no one from the cabinet is really to be believed any more. The worst thing for the Yes Campaign would be to gain the vocal support of Blair and his cronies.

What us pro-EUers really need is for the likes of Blair, Hain, Mandelson, MacShane and the rest to keep their bloody mouths shut, as every time they say something it's so overly simplistic and arrogant-sounding that the Eurosceptics are instantly up in arms. The "patriotic case" for the constitution would once have been possible to convincingly construct - but not now that the government has co-opted it with the typically unthinking accusations that the constitution's opponents are xenophobes, "little Englanders" and the like.

Yes, some of them doubtless are; others have actually thought about it more sensibly, analysed the pros and cons (often with a rather scary level of obsessiveness), and have genuinely concluded that it's not in the country's best interests to shift decisions which can affect our daily lives to the other side of the Channel. Those views should be respected, not ridiculed, and those who hold them should be engaged in constructive debate about the issues, not dismissed as cranks. And - most importantly - the spokespeople from the pro-EU side need to make sure that they are just as knowledgable and well-briefed as their opponents.

All too often, pro-EU voices in the mainstream media talk purely in terms of generalisations and platitudes, while the Eurosceptics tend to focus in on specific issues. This generally makes it seem like pro-EU people haven't got a clue what they're talking about, which discredits the whole argument, and anyone else making the pro-EU case. The assumptions made in some comments on this very blog are indicative of the growing assumption on the anti side that anyone pro-EU simply doesn't know what they're talking about.

The fact that the whole thing is so bloody complicated naturally means that there are alternative viewpoints. I disagree entirely with the conclusions of, say, The Scotsman's Bill Jamieson, but I respect his conclusions because they're based on solid research and a level of understanding of international finance which I doubt I will ever achieve. (Well, that and the fact he's been a very close friend of the family for as long as I can remember and is always entertaining at the dinner table...)

What the Yes Campaign needs is not for politicians to come out and laud the bloody thing, but for respected, high-profile independent experts to come out in support. (Eddie Izzard, I'm afraid, isn't quite what is needed - although he certainly helps a bit.) The Yes Campaign also really needed these pro-EU experts to have started emerging at least a decade ago to actually hold any weight in the eyes of the public. Those people who emerge in favour of the constitution now will look like they're in it purely for campaigning; on the anti side there are the likes of Jamieson and Richard North who have been moderately high profile in their opposition to the EU for years. The fact that they have been demonstrably involved for such a long time means their view will hold more weight in the eyes of the public than some gadfly from the yes camp who pops up a few months before the referendum.

In short, the only thing the pro camp in Britain can really learn from Spain's yes vote is how to make excuses. Much as the Eurosceptics are trying to save face by pointing to the low turnout (lack of enthusiasm, you see?) and lack of understanding of the document (if they knew what they were voting about, they'd vote no), British pro-Europeans will probably have to try similar tactics when the vote is lost here next year. Britain votes no, the excuses will be exactly the same - low turnout means it's not representative of the view of the population as a whole, and lack of understanding means that those who voted no didn't really know what they were doing.

In other words, nothing will have really changed - except for we will have pissed off a decent chunk of our European allies for preventing them from moving ahead. The responsibility for any no vote, however, will lie entirely with the inadequate explanations of the self-appointed spokesmen of the pro-EU cause. After decades of avoiding the uncomfortable facts about the problems of the way the EU works and delivering all pro-EU messages in a such patronising and simplistic tones, everyone is suspicious of any positive take on the thing. This has - combined with some brilliantly subtle distortions of reality from the Eurosceptic camp - also made it practically impossible to be truly honest.

If a British pro-EU spokesman now were to admit that "Yes, the EU probably is heading towards a more federalised structure," this would instantly be interpreted (falsely, I hasten to add) as meaning "The EU is becoming a superstate, and all the traditional nations will be swallowed by this corrupt and bureaucratic behemoth". Thanks to a combination of a superb job of subtle distortion by the anti-EU brigade and a piss-poor job of not so subtle over-simplification by the pro-EU side, such admissions can no longer be made lest they be utterly misrepresented and misinterpreted. Thanks to the lack of a standard interpretation of the terminology, honest debate about the EU has become impossible.

Either way, Barcepundit has a superb round-up of reactions to the Spanish vote.

7 Comments:

Blogger ken said...

Good post, Helen at eureferendum makes a similar point.
"But I remain worried. These cannot be the heavy guns. When are they going to be wheeled out and are we prepared for them?"

2/22/2005 01:25:00 pm  
Anonymous Toby said...

I agree with Ken (a bit worrying) and presumably then by extension with Helen (very worrying!) - but yes, this is an excellent post.

2/22/2005 03:35:00 pm  
Anonymous Phil Hunt said...

"""Bollocks, should he. If he wants a yes vote he should leave well enough alone. After the last few years of lies and distortions eminating from Downing Street if Blair tells the country that something is good for them everyone would be entirely justified in believing precisely the opposite. In fact, no one from the cabinet is really to be believed any more. The worst thing for the Yes Campaign would be to gain the vocal support of Blair and his cronies."""

I expect you're right here!

2/22/2005 06:54:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im sorry but Tony Blair is simply put..."a good prime minister"...how else could he be on track for a third year in office? Hes also pro-Eu, and much more so than he would have us believe (which is in my view is always a good thing).

2/22/2005 07:55:00 pm  
Anonymous alan said...

Some good points there, but to win the arguement tony blair would have to campaign in support of the constitution as ignoring it would leave open the charge that the goverment is not interested, from both pro camp and EU

also the problem is that many people that support the EU status quo at the moment so the anti constitution arguement can argue we are fine at the moment while those in favour have to argue for change

also unlike spain, UK is not automatically pro EU, but would be nice if UK benefited from subsidies as that could help win arguement here

always possible that another country eg France or Denmark could vote no first and save UK the problem of voting no

2/22/2005 09:08:00 pm  
Blogger Northwestern Economist said...

Outstanding post, Nosemonkey; professionally conceived and argued. Really good advice for political leaders in all circumstances.

2/23/2005 09:05:00 am  
Blogger Shuggy said...

Hmmm, I also think that the pro-EU camp needs to run a populist campaign - vote yes for cheap fags and booze. Also, people like Polly Toynbee need to stop this "anyone who disagrees with the EU is a little Englander xenophobe" nonsense...

2/23/2005 09:39:00 am  

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