EU Referendum – The End of Fear?

When all else fails, sometimes only fear will do. ‘Though most modern writers and politicians oppose political fear as the enemy of liberty…they often embrace it, in spite of themselves, as a source of political vitality’*.

Fear, both as a basis for argument and a political technique, has been fully in evidence in the EU referendum debate. It has its practitioners on both sides of the campaign. But its most systematic and effective use had been in the strategy adopted by the UK government to argue the case for remaining in the EU.

Until now, this has been facilitated by the law governing the referendum, but as we have entered the last 28 days of the referendum, the same law is now making it more difficult to pursue.

The government’s original question for the referendum was ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’. Thanks to the work of the Electoral Commission in its report on the referendum question, the question was changed to one that does not have a yes/no answer. This avoided one unattractive feature of the Scottish independence referendum, by ensuring that neither side in the campaign was placed in the invidious position of having to argue for a negative outcome.

In principle, this liberated both sides to promote their competing positive conceptions of a future remaining in, or outside of, the EU. In practice, however, the debate has been one of astonishing negativity.

In the case of the ‘leave’ campaign, the positive case has largely involved an argument for a series of abstractions (independence, freedom, sovereignty). When pressed, it has been difficult for the would-be Brexiteers to present a coherent vision of what life will look like outside the EU. An early government intervention which hit home (because true) was that the process for leaving the EU would generate a prolonged period of uncertainty. So the leave campaign has generally fallen back on safer territory, the real or perceived fears of what the EU stands for (bureaucracy, regulation, migration).

Meanwhile, since the Prime Minister negotiated a UK opt-out from the EU’s own mission statement (‘ever closer union’) – I wrote about that deal here – the ‘remain’ campaign has seemed unable to articulate any alternative positive vision for the UK’s future in the EU. Instead, each day brings fresh dire prognostications about what will happen – to national security, economic growth, unemployment, pensions, house prices, and so on – if the UK votes to leave. Were that outcome to occur, these repeated warnings of economic calamity may turn out to have so shaped and reinforced negative market sentiment as to be self-fulfilling, whatever the situation might otherwise have been.

But perhaps the main reason the referendum debate both looks and feels so driven by fear and anxiety in the role played by the government.

The law of the referendum can be found in the underlying statute which provides the legal framework for all referendums (the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 – PPERA) and a later piece of legislation which supplements and amends it for the purposes of the current referendum (the European Union Referendum Act 2015).

In principle, these statutes create a world of two ‘lead’ campaigns, chosen for that role by the Electoral Commission from any competing candidates – in this case, Britain Stronger In Europe (the curiously capitalised ‘In’ is deliberate, presumably to avoid the unfortunate connotations of being the ‘BSE’ group) and Vote Leave (which successfully faced down the less blue blooded Grassroots Out movement in the Electoral Commission’s decision).

These two campaign groups have significant advantages over any others – a £7m spending limit during the referendum period (they still have to raise the money, at which the leave campaigners have done rather better), one free mailshot to voters (worth around £9m), the right to referendum broadcasts, and access to up to £600,000 of public grant funding. In contrast, registered campaigners other than the two lead groups are capped at a total expenditure of £700,000 (and lack any of the other privileges) while anyone not registered can spend no more than £10,000.

What this should have established was broad parity between the lead groups on both sides of the argument, each operating within clear parameters and with equality of arms. There would be, in other words, a measure of balance, even handedness and restraint.

In practice, this finely calibrated balance has been exploded by a provision of the very legislation which seeks to establish it.

Under section 125 of PPERA, the period of pre-referendum ‘purdah’ – when government ministers and their departments are precluded, with limited exceptions, from publishing any information about the referendum – started only 28 days before the referendum itself, on 27 May. This means that for the majority of the referendum period, which started on 15 April, the government has been free to publish its own campaigning materials, explicitly arguing the case for ‘remain’ and rendering all rules about campaign balance redundant.

The sense of the referendum as negative and fear-driven ultimately derives from this fact. With the full weight of the government’s media machine behind it, the persistence, scale, repetition and volume of the daily warnings emanating from Whitehall has so dominated the debate as to obliterate any traces of the more balanced contest that might otherwise (if one felt optimistic) have survived.

It is salutary to note that when the EU Referendum Bill was passing through Parliament, the government wanted it to disapply section 125 of PPERA and effectively abolish purdah altogether in this referendum. The point was highly contentious, and eventually dropped.

However, as it is, the government used every moment of the time available to it until the window eventually closed at midnight on 26 May 2016. This included publishing, three days beforehand, a Treasury paper on the immediate economic impact of leaving the EU (‘an immediate and profound economic shock…recession…a sharp rise in unemployment’) and, a mere three hours in advance of the deadline, a supplemental paper on the effects on pensioners (‘If the UK were to leave the EU, the aggregate wealth of those aged over 65 would fall by around £170 billion in the shock scenario and by around £300 billion in the severe shock scenario…’).

In the postmortem that will certainly follow the referendum, whichever way the vote goes, it might be hoped that lessons can be learned from the distorting effect on the campaign of section 125 of PPERA specifying a period of purdah much shorter than the referendum period.

But now that purdah has finally taken effect, will it make a difference?

On the same day that purdah began, the Treasury Select Committee published a report into the economic and financial costs and benefits of the UK’s EU membership. Among its other virtues, this systematically exposes the inaccuracy of many of the claims made on both sides of the debate. Its conclusions are balanced, lucid and well-informed.

In the press statement that accompanied the report, the Select Committee Chairman, Andrew Tyrie MP, expressed the hope that the start of purdah would trigger ‘an amnesty on misleading, and at times bogus, claims. The public are thoroughly fed up with them’. Perhaps. The feeling persists, however, that the die has long since been cast for this referendum.

In the end, politicians reach for fear in the absence of anything else, and because it works. But it is a device which poisons the well of political discourse. Andrew Tyrie MP again –

‘The arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims made by both the leave and remain sides is not just confusing the public. It is impoverishing political debate’.

In all the materials published on the EU referendum this side of 23 June, you are unlikely to find a statement more true than that.

* Corey Robin – Fear: The History of a Political Idea, OUP, 2004 (p.4)