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Let me tell you a story: how to win a referendum  
17 Nov, 2019

George Stevenson reflects on how when all of this started genuine euro-sceptics were few in number. To get a referendum through the election, and then win it, Remainers need a positive story. There is a fantastic story to tell about the EU. Let us tell it, and win.

On a recent short break, my reading was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One of his most startling conclusions is that the critical difference between ourselves as homo sapiens and other human species was that we have a language that allows us to talk about things that don’t exist, such as myths and legends - in essence, we can tell stories. He goes on to say that a small number of people can tell stories which persuade a much larger number of people to cooperate in pursuit of a common aim.

The anti-EU campaign is a good example of this. It’s hard to remember now, but genuine euro-sceptics were few in number when all of this started. UKIP was the creation of one man, and for many years associated mainly with one man. John Major referred to only three euro-sceptic members of his cabinet as bastards. Even today, the European Research Group numbers fewer than 100. Some may have genuinely believed that leaving the EU was the right thing to do; others may have had more selfish motives. But they were always a very small minority.

And over the years, at least until the referendum, the UK population generally didn’t seem very interested in the arguments either way. Most seemed to feel, in the words of Terry Pratchett’s fictional Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, that "They think they want good government and justice for all, Vimes, yet what is it they really crave, deep in their hearts? Only that things go on as normal and tomorrow is pretty much like today."

But the euro-sceptics had a story - that the EU was somehow ‘bad’, and that the UK would be better leaving it. The story was consistent over many years, but also flexible enough to adapt to the changing concerns of the public- whether immigration, the state of public services, concerns over democracy, or a general sense that the world was changing too quickly. Over time, the story gained currency, and its proponents started to appear more frequently on television, radio or in newspapers, which in turn gave it more currency.

To make matters much worse, there was no complementary story for why the EU was a good idea, or why it was good for the UK to be a member. It was taken as a given, and the transactional nature of our approach over the years meant that that support was unenthusiastic. David Cameron declared himself a pragmatic euro-sceptic - a statement that both legitimised euro-scepticism and failed to provide a strong narrative for being a part of the EU.

So when the referendum came, the Leave campaign had a solidly established story. The slogan take back control and promises about the NHS were inspired, managing to turn what had previously been a fairly negative story into something more positive and optimistic. By contrast, the Remain campaign had no story to build on, and relied on what was essentially a version of a child’s morality tale: "Do what we say, or the big, bad wolf will gobble you up." Unsurprisingly, when asked a direct question, a large number of people preferred the optimistic, consistent story, rather than an unenthusiastic negative one.

To get a referendum through the election, and to then win it (positivity is key to a good story), we need a better story. Fortunately, after nearly four years, we have the advantage. Leave is the status quo, and there are virtually no positive reasons given for doing it now, beyond the clichéd Will of the People. Most people seem to be heartily sick of the whole subject. The story now is of either Getting it Done, or various strands of the betrayal narrative. Both of these are very negative, so a good, positive story may be better received now by those who wish that tomorrow should be much like today.

Previous blogs on this site have made many excellent suggestions for subjects of a good story.  We can talk about how cooperation means that:

  • the UK has more control over its affairs as a medium sized country than if it were alone;
  • that some challenges such as climate change or international crime need cooperation across borders;
  • how the close-knit web of trade and political arrangements makes war not just impossible, but unthinkable;
  • that immigrants both integrate and contribute to our country; and 
  • that having a series of rules by which states must comply before they join the club (unlike, for example the UN) makes the EU a force for good, both for its own member states, those seeking to join, and countries elsewhere.

As someone who is married to a citizen from another EU country, I like the story that being in the EU allows us to fall in love with and settle down with whoever we like, without having to jump through significant bureaucratic hoops. Without giving it the full Richard Curtis treatment (Remain Actually?), perhaps we can produce a story about this most universal of human experiences.

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.