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Identity or economics?
02 Dec, 2018

Let’s make the positive case

London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg wonders whether it’s too late to campaign on a pro-European identity. But we must if we are to heal the country. So let’s start now.


New findings on why people voted Leave

A new UCL Constitution Unit blog by Professor Stephen Fisher and Alan Renwick looks at how people’s expectations of the consequences of Brexit affected their vote. Their conclusions are that:

  • There was a strong link between voting Leave and expecting immigration to be lower after Brexit.
  • People thought that most things would be much the same after Brexit. However, where people did think that the economy would be better/ worse, that was definitely correlated with voting intention.
  • The result would anyway have been close even if people thought that everything would be the same because Britons do not have a shared European identity but see EU membership as transactional.
  • Typically, risk-aversion leads people to vote no-change in a referendum. That was the case in 2016 also, but to a lesser degree. Those who answered “don’t know” to questions about effects tended to vote Remain. Those who felt uncertain about the effects of Leaving tended to vote Remain and vice versa.


Other research reached different conclusions

Professor Eric Kaufman argued that the key issue was always between those who favoured open and closed societies.  Professor John Curtice suggests that we are now divided into two tribes by our identity as Leavers or Remainers.

Meanwhile, trackers on Natcen, YouGov and UK Polling Report show changing relative priorities since the Vote.


The Government’s case

First on its list of 40 benefits is: “Free movement will come to an end, once and for all.”. Later: “We will have a free trade area with the EU, with no tariffs, ….”, So the Government is promising to cut immigration and that the economy will stay the same.


How we should fight the referendum campaign


There is a Brexit plan. Explaining that the Political Declaration leaves everything open while the Irish backstop ties us down will be too complex to land as an uncertainty argument.

Leave will again be able to argue that staying in the EU brings uncertainty because we do not have control: recent statements by Macron and Merkel calling for a European Army, Turkish membership, Italy’s budget crisis, authoritarianism and counter-measures in Hungary and Poland, refugees.


That means that we have to address sovereignty – “take back control” – head on:

  • Sovereignty is a tool to be used to obtain benefits. Ted Heath in the House of Commons referred to the “effective” use of sovereignty. Its effective use can often come through joint working.
  • The EU empowers nation states to deal with our problems (terrorism, environment) by pooling sovereignty.
  • 70 years with no war between member states. Unprecedented in European history.

The quotes from Leave leaders that the deal would make us a vassal state will help, though they will argue we can untie ourselves later.


We need to find Leave voters – or people with whom Leave voters can empathise – who wish to or might wish to exercise freedom of movement: the Geordie builders of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

We have to explain that our EU fellow-citizens are people like us, with common values and ways of behaving, no more different than people from another county or from Ireland. Immigrants assimilate.


Very few voters will understand the difference between the single market, customs union and a free trade area; between frictionless and free trade.

If the economy is our campaign (again) we will lose. Again.

Identity and values

Finally, identity is not a given. It can be changed. We can lead people to see that they can be European and well as British, that the two identities do not detract from each other. More unites us, such as values, with our EU fellow citizens than divides us.

That we have become tribes of Leavers and Remainers shows that identity can change quickly.


We need to get on with it

Even while we are seeking to obtain the People’s Vote referendum we should be planning to win it.

Perhaps we have left it a bit late to do difficult campaigning like shaping identities. The lesson I draw from that is not that we should just talk about the economy, but that we should start now focusing on European identity and values.


We need to get together

Of course the campaign themes should not be set by well-meaning amateurs but be properly tested and evaluated by a professional campaign body.

That professional organisation needs to be created now out of all the Remain bodies. We must not let personal and organisational egos stop that. For the duration of the campaign all the national bodies need to be willing to subsume their identities for the greater good. The national body needs to work co-operatively with the local bodies.



If we win the referendum because Leavers wish to quit but do not think we can afford it we will lose the period after the vote. We have got to win with a positive vision of our shared European identity, pooling our sovereignty and how immigration benefits us (as well as addressing grievances) if we are to heal the country afterwards.




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