George Stevenson argues that, whilst people are starting to realise that Brexit is the problem, rejoining the EU doesn’t yet seem to be the solution.
A recent poll suggests that support for Brexit has fallen to its lowest level this year, with a corresponding rise in opposition - 38% say that it was the right decision, whilst 49% say that it was the wrong decision.
At first sight, this would suggest that we are winning the argument: if we can persuade a chunk of the 13% ‘don’t knows’ to our side, along with some of those who think it was the right decision, but aren’t so hard-line about it, then we would be on our way to a decent enough majority thinking that Brexit is a bad idea.
Looking at other data, however, suggests that the picture isn’t quite as rosy. Firstly, these figures only match the best/worst in the time series since the referendum, suggesting that there hasn’t been such a change in underlying opinions, although there does seem to be a general decline is support since the reality of Brexit has started to bite. Secondly, when asked how people would vote in a future referendum, ‘Rejoin’ is on 43%, whilst ‘Stay Out’ is at 42% (with presumably around 15% ‘don’t know’).
So whilst people are starting to realise that Brexit is the problem, rejoining the EU doesn’t yet seem to be the solution. This matters, because it suggests that whilst we may be having some success in persuading people of the malign effects of Brexit, we are yet to build a case that will persuade them of the benefits of rejoining the EU. We risk being stuck in a sort of limbo, where people grumble about the effects of Brexit, but aren’t willing to commit to a rejoining as a way of solving these problems.
Or, to put it another way, whilst we all agree passionately that rejoining the EU is the right policy, and that this is best for the UK, we don’t always seem to be able to articulate clearly why we believe this. Somehow, despite the strength of our feelings, we don’t seem to be able to set out the compelling arguments that will convince people.
As an example, there seems little doubt that the economy will benefit from rejoining, and in Bill Clinton’s notable phrase, "it may be the economy, stupid", that will be a strong argument for many. The trouble is that many, or most, of these benefits could be provided by membership of the Customs Union and Single Market; they are not dependent on full EU membership.
Indeed, pretty much anything would be an improvement on the current situation, and headlines about the effects on individual incomes of the recent budget can only strengthen the case for some improvement on the current deal.
Somehow, though, I don’t think that this would be satisfactory for many of us. There could, then, be an argument that if we must abide by the rules of the Single Market, then we would be better rejoining so as to have a say in how those rules are developed, but this hardly sounds like a rallying cry to inspire anyone.
Such a halfway house will also always gift an argument to our opponents that we shouldn’t be a ‘rule taker’ and should be free to set our own rules on how we trade, despite this most likely being illusory.
What then, is the critical difference, or benefit that being a full EU member provides? What does this provide that we wouldn’t get from the likely alternatives? Why is this important to us? I think that we need to be much clearer in our own minds about what the answer to these questions should be.
I suggest that the national European Movement should devote some time and effort to finding answers to this question as part of its work for the next year. Such efforts aren’t particularly unusual - many organisations spend time developing a concept of their ‘values’. Sometimes these can be little more than window dressing, but occasionally they can be a core part of how they carry on their business. Political parties also spend much time on identifying core beliefs and testing these and other messages with samples of the public - think "Get Brexit Done", or "For the Many, not the Few".
We seem to be clear what we believe, but we don’t seem to be clear yet why we believe it. If we can answer this question, and to communicate it well, then we will be able to develop the compelling arguments that will persuade the 15% of ’don’t knows’ and some of the 42% of ‘stayout-ers’ to back our cause. Then we will be well on the way to achieving our aims and making it harder for the politicians to ignore us.
In Part 2, I look at how we can strengthen our arguments to achieve the greatest impact, and to anticipate our opponents’ arguments.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.