The other week, during my time in London, I had the privilege to listen to MP and shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn make the case for staying in the EU. Rarely have I heard such a masterful orator and, whilst I might not have agreed with everything he said, it was actually quite thrilling to listen to him make his case. Like hearing a well-read bit of poetry.
By comparison, the Eurosceptics on the panel often sounded shrill and desperate and occasionally a little bit crazy. At one point, one of the panellists – Gerald McGregor, a Chiswick town councillor – brandished a piece of paper in his hand, and suggested that David Cameron’s return from Europe before the referendum was a little like Neville Chamberlain returning from Nazi Germany before World War II broke out. Comparing the European project to Nazism isn’t really what folk want to hear.
And that is why the Leave camp will fail.
Not just because their standard-bearers seem to constantly be making obscure references to fascism or tyranny or to a world that now no longer exists (although that probably doesn’t help). But because arguing about leaving the European Union is a lot harder than arguing about remaining. And the Leave camp just don’t seem to have put in the effort to make this case clearly, passionately and rationally enough.
Of course, this isn’t all their fault. Rational Eurosceptics do have the very real problem of having to make their voices heard above those of charismatic and politically-ambitious spokespeople of the Eurosceptic cause, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Both likeable enough fellows, but they have managed to boil the arguments of why we might want to leave the EU into such crass shades of grey that they are easily put down by any Remainer with half a brain.
Maybe that is what people want to hear – the simplistic – because it is just too difficult to understand all the nuances behind what it would mean to leave a community that we have been wedded to for longer than I have been alive.
It is extremely difficult to make a rational argument for why we might want to leave the EU without sounding a little crazy, which is why I never try to enter this mine field. But I have some very good Eurosceptic friends who do make such a case very convincingly. The problem is that such convincing arguments never seem to enter the mainstream.
It is precisely because the Eurosceptic case is so much harder to put than the pro-European one that those in the Leave camp should have worked harder at making it. They should have made an effort to understand and explain the more complex areas of the debate, not simply glassed over this and repeated ad-nauseam the rather right-wing snub to immigrants or the subdued left-wing doff to the NHS.
Like what benefit does leaving the EU actually bring to people living in the UK? As with the Scottish referendum, people will be voting with their wallet in mind.
Like exactly why there is such a democratic deficit in the EU, and whether that really matters? Because many people don’t seem to quite get this.
Like exactly what comes afterwards? Okay, perhaps this is a difficult one to answer, since this is a great unknown, but at least they could have tried. At least they could have given us some plan as to what comes once we have taken this leap in the dark.
None of this to say that we shouldn’t leave the EU; I am still split 50-50 on this. Rather, the point of this blog entry is to reassure those committed Remainers out there that they don’t have anything to fear. The Brexiters had a far harder task of persuading people why they should hand back their membership card. And because their job was so much more daunting they should have tried twice as hard to do so.
And then, even without Hilary Benn in their arsenal, they might just have succeeded in winning enough of the electorate round to make a difference.