Britain’s debate about Europe is a battle of words

The level of the public debate about the so-called Brexit from the EU has been particularly unedifying, writes Colin Randall.

A stall holder sells t-shirts with a slogan urging people to leave the EU. Phil Noble / Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Truth can be a casualty in the democratic process as well as in war.

Campaigning for the referendum that will decide in June whether Britain remains within the European Union has made a predictably acrimonious start, with insults galore and a stream of bewildering claims and counterclaims. It threatens to become a gruelling affair for voters.

The prime minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservative party risks being torn apart, perhaps avoiding the most damaging electoral consequences only because the main opposition party, Labour, is also in disarray and appears unsure of its role in the debate.

The people are being asked to decide whether Britain should stay in the EU or bring 43 years of membership to a bad-tempered end. They are entitled to feel confused about the issues and alienated by the campaigners’ questionable use of language.

The government is split, with six cabinet ministers wanting Britain to leave. Mr Cameron insists staying would make Britain “safer, stronger and better off”. One of the most senior dissidents, the justice minister Michael Gove, retorts that the country would be not only “better off” but freer and fairer outside the EU.

Older voters recall similar tit-for-tat polemic when a referendum was held in 1975 on whether to leave the union only two years after joining.

The massed ranks of big business warned then of massive job losses if Britain pulled out. And, of course, supporters of withdrawal predicted the same would happen if it did not.

Blithe forecasts of economic and social calamity, made with equal force by the rival camps, are once again commonplace. If the standard of debate hardly reached an edifying level in 1975, the opening sequence of the new campaign reveals little improvement.

"Cameron lets rip at Boris" was The Daily Telegraph's brash main headline, its tone perhaps best suited for readers aged 10 or under. The newspaper was reporting the prime minister's undisguised anger at the decision by London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to throw his weight behind the "Britain out" faction. Rightly or wrongly, the mayor's initiative is commonly seen as owing a good deal less to principle than to a desire to succeed Mr Cameron.

The Daily Mail, stridently urging Britain to turn its back on Europe, poured scorn on what it interpreted as Cameron-inspired scaremongering to make voters believe Brexit, the ubiquitous if inelegant neologism for British withdrawal, would lead to huge increases in phone bills and a rise in crime.

How can the undecided citizen begin to distinguish between fact and fiction, credible analysis and inflated rhetoric?

In the most grotesque example of contradictory politicking, both sides resorted to alarming the public on the implications of the referendum’s outcome for security.

“Let me be clear,” declared Mr Cameron. “Leaving the European Union would threaten our economic and national security.” He has in mind the suggestion that intelligence-sharing with European agencies, effective in thwarting several planned attacks, would be diminished if Britain stood alone.

Does his anti-EU works and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith, agree? He does not. The “present status of the open border”, he argues, would make Britain more vulnerable to Paris-style attacks. Others try to link Europe’s migrant crisis to both EU membership and the terrorist menace.

What they overlook is that Britain is already a prime target for atrocities and will continue to be so, in or out of the EU, as long as ISIL remains undefeated.

In the absence of cool, measured debate, this is precisely the sort of clash that should persuade voters to allow gut instinct to triumph over the temptation to listen to irresponsible words calculated to exploit natural fears.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National