‘How (not) to talk about Europe’ is a recent publication from the independent think tank Britain’s Future, that advises both the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns to change their narrative so as to involve and engage the wider public, leaving a lasting legacy of public participation. In this sense, we all need to be talking about Europe.
Here’s what we’re doing wrong: the debate has started and campaigns are pressing on ahead with rhetoric and branding, but the majority of the population have been left behind. They’re in the dark – ill informed and confused over conflicting messages. The campaigns are already failing because they haven’t managed to involve the public in the debate.
The sharp critique from the authors is delivered as advice, but it’s clear there is no choice; there needs to be increased public engagement, and this requires both campaigns to make a much more deliberate effort to involve people. Alongside the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns, the authors call for a ‘Third Campaign’ with only one clear goal – the maximisation of public engagement and participation.
The desired result? A lasting legacy of participation. The winner of the ‘Third Campaign’ is not ‘In’ or ‘Out’, but Britain itself. We have a great example from Scotland’s independence referendum and the dramatic rise of public engagement and interest in politics. We know there’s something special about referendums; they empower people in a unique way, far more than voting in a regular election. People’s votes have an immediate impact, and making a decision forces people to consider both sides of the argument. There are many other reasons that spark people to get involved in politics aside from those connected to a referendum, but here’s the difference: we know this works.
The authors go on to discuss the idea that politics is too far removed from people, being confined to the ‘Westminster bubble’. This is not the way a proper democracy should work. A democratic society is one in which people engage and participate in decisions that affect their lives. They propose that this referendum could be a chance to ‘revitalise our democracy’, and that there is a real opportunity for Britain to flourish with this increased level of engagement.
The case is convincing; Britain has nothing to lose, but everything to gain. The entire country should make the most of this chance to spark a new level of public participation.
Listen up campaigners
The authors also offer advice to both sides on what they’re doing wrong. Neither campaign can hope to win by a large victory if they don’t manage to engage with many more people in a different way, with different narrative, and from different political backgrounds and walks of life.
The advice given is to get out of the comfort zone. Move away from safe topics that each side’s core supporters enjoy, and change the discourse to appeal to those who need persuading. Immigration already seems to be the defining topic of the debate, but for example, ‘Out’ risks being perceived as xenophobic, and ‘In’ need to stop ignoring it as an issue.
In the EU or out of the EU, Britain itself will be victorious if the opportunity of the ‘Third Campaign’ is seized. British democracy will be enriched and rejuvenated, with a legacy of participation and lasting change.
Read the full publication here.
[Ed: I’d especially recommend reading the part that hypotheses the referendum outcome, presented as front page news stories, the day after the referendum. This is a fun and clever way of considering the various factors which will influence the result]
Find out more about the think tank British Future and this publication here.
Interested in the EU Referendum debate? Look out for our new website where we’ll be publishing information about the EU especially for the upcoming referendum (in progress)