One of the recurring themes of my posts over the years has been the need for an informed and thoughtful public debate in the UK about its place in the world. Without such a debate, it is very hard to see how the UK can ever really move out of its impasse with the EU.
For the entire post-WWII period, there has been a sense among politicians and other elites that European integration is important and that the UK should play some role in it, but nothing much more than a sense, since there has been no clarity about what the overarching objective might be: control? disruption? damage limitation?
And if elites weren’t clear, then the public has been even less so: first ignored, then grudgingly introduced to a system not designed for them, then encouraged not to think too hard about it all. That the previous moments for a full-on debate – accession, the 1975 referendum, the constitutional treaty – were not taken up by elites, and the public equally failed to demand them, does not give much hope for the present situation.
But hope dies hard and, despite my proclivities as an historical institutionalist, I can’t simply be bound by the events of the past.
And so it has been with some cause for encouragement in my heart that I have become involved in the ESRC’s ‘UK in a changing Europe‘ programme. Set up prior to last year’s general election, the programme was designed not so much to generate new research on matters European, but to engage in public debate. In my case, there will be some new work on campaign materials and social media, but it will come alongside much more work on dissemination, via blogs, podcasts, media pieces and public events.
The key challenge in this is, obviously, credibility and impartiality: the polarisation of the European debate in the UK (not least in the media representation of it) has created something of an environment where to state any opinion is to be dubbed a puppet of Brussels or a narrow-minded nationalist. Indeed, two of the people in the programme have already enjoyed the attentions of Euro Guido (complete with advanced Photoshop illustration). Even the approach that the programme has – rightly, in my opinion – taken in response, namely to ground contributions in rigorous research and evidence, still leaves open the questions of interpretation: we might agree on some facts, but not on what it means.
The first key message that I took was that influence is very hard to measure, and that people often tend either a) to measure what’s easy to measure, or b) measure what fits with their objectives. That’s a general issue affecting activists and academics alike, with the crucial difference that the latter group are much more comfortable about admitting it. A classic (and much mentioned) example was Simon Hix’s work on voting outcomes in Council and Parliament. Hix points out that British MEPs tend to be on the wrong end of losing votes more often than MEPs of other countries, but also clarifies this is substantially affected by the choices of EP grouping that those British MEPs have made. Likewise, while the UK has lost more votes in the Council than any other member state, it has still been part of the majority almost 90% of the time. Give yourself 30 seconds and you can now imagine how Remainers and Leavers have used those findings.
The second key message is that the perceived polarisation of the debate has had various pernicious effects. Manichean worldviews abound: if you don’t agree with me completely, you must be on the other side. On a couple of occasions at the workshop, we ended up with ad hominem arguments that had nothing to do with anything of substance. In a debate where you have to sell your campaign message, subtlety tends to go out the window. Certainly, emotions have a role to play in the debate, but it is still a concern if that comes at the cost of substance or evidence. To echo one contributor, some of my best friends are Europeans, but I also know some Europeans who are complete pains, just as I can say the same of Brits, or any other group of people: it doesn’t actually advance us or our discussion.
This takes us to the third key message, namely that persistence matters. It was instructive to look around the room and see people who I know have spent their entire professional lives trying to help inform debate (be that on the EU, or on other things): they haven’t given up and nor should anyone else. Big shifts in debate or attitudes are very rare, so we shouldn’t expect everything to work out, but we should still try.
To come back to the title of this piece, trust is hard to win and easy to lose. No one has a monopoly of truth on the issues, so the key thing is to keep on thinking about what people – whoever they might be – tell us. We should listen to what is out there, question and challenge what we hear and talk about what we think. That might not be a perfect process, but it’s better than passive consumption.
In the context of the referendum, there are some genuinely deeply significant and consequential choices to be made. If we can have a debate about those choices that is a bit more informed, a bit more reflective and directed, then that has to be better for everyone involved, whatever the outcome. If democratic life should have taught us anything, then it is that process matters as much as outcome, and that the process actually helps validate the outcome.
So I’m going to try my best to be useful in this debate and I encourage others to do the same.