When I was at school, the playground was often the scene of 'cussing matches' which, for the uninitiated, were verbal jousts that involved two or more children hurling insults at each other until one of the kids left the field of combat crying, or a fistfight broke out.
There can be little doubt that the EU referendum has spawned a national cussing match, with both sides hurling allegations, opinions and factoids. I call them factoids because while there may be kernels of truth at their core, it has been swaddled in so much bias that people either immediately embrace it as confirmation of a pre-existing opinion, or reject it as useless propaganda. A cussing match is not the way to win hearts and minds.
If the polls are to be believed, the country is more or less split down the middle on the subject of whether to leave the EU. A narrow victory by either side won't do anyone any good. If the UK votes to leave the EU by a small margin, there's every chance that, like the Irish, we'll be asked to re-run the referendum. If remain narrowly wins, UKIP will emerge reinvigorated and will be a constant thorn in the side of any government, relentlessly campaigning on an issue that has the support of at least 40% of the UK population.
The only way to avoid either of these outcomes is for one side to win a resounding victory, but until we have a proper debate, I don't see either side making the kind of gains it needs for that to happen.
As a parent I know how important it is to teach children to share. Children who don't share tend to be selfish and entitled, unattractive qualities in a person. It may seem simplistic, but one of the fundamental issues at the heart of this referendum is whether we want to share our country and our resources with other nations and to share their resources in return. We currently send £350 million to the EU each week, although a proportion of that is returned to us via the rebate. Free movement of people means that net migration runs at approximately 300,000 per year, versus an average of around 30,000 per year between 1950 and 1997.
There can be no doubt that we are being asked to share more, but in return we obtain access to the largest single market in the world. This should be a simple economic argument, but it isn't, and one reason the momentum seems to be with those campaigning to leave is that the Remain campaign has not taken account of the fact that while the macro reasons for membership may seem obvious, the micro concerns of individuals have not been addressed. The Remain campaign has not even admitted that people are being asked to share more, let alone explained the reasons why they should.
The BBC's fact checker has confirmed that the UK would need to build 27 primary schools each year to cope with immigration in order to maintain the current child to school place ratio. There are similarly striking figures for secondary schools, hospitals, housing, and transportation, and they all seem to point to the inescapable conclusion that without massive investment people will be asked to accept a reduction in the quality of public services if we remain in the EU.
If the Remain campaign wants to win people over, it needs to do one of two things. It either needs to explain why such sharing is in the interests of affected individuals, or it needs to prove that the government will make the necessary investment to ensure that the standard of public services will not drop as a result of continued membership. Put simply, it either needs to explain to people why sharing is good for them, or it needs to prove that their slice of the pie won't get any smaller.
If the Remain campaign can do one of these two things, it should be able to win over people who are worried about maintaining their existing quality of life. Downplaying the impact of immigration or hurling insults and deriding such people as myopic Little Englanders won't work. Downplaying the impact of immigration insults the intelligence of people who can do basic maths. Insulting them or deriding them as Little Englanders will only harden their opinions, and given that somewhere between 40% to 50% of people now want to leave the EU, it is disingenuous to dismiss them as a minority group of swivel-eyed loons or extremists.
The Remain campaign has another challenge: Democracy. It needs to prove to those concerned about sovereignty that the EU is a democratic institution. Our democratic rights were hard won and people fought for centuries not to be ruled by an unaccountable, unelected elite. On this issue, the Remain campaign either needs to prove that the EU is democratic, or give good reasons why we should surrender any of our democratic rights.
The Leave campaign has its own equally difficult challenges. It needs to demonstrate that sovereignty is worth worrying about, that it is not bigoted to be concerned about immigration, and that a reluctance to share resources and be part of a system of government that seems to work for 27 other nations is not driven by a selfish sense of entitlement, a quality that might make us unattractive as a nation.
Instead of belittling and insulting, both sides need to inform, educate and talk about the deal that's on offer in honest, impartial terms so that people can come to reasoned conclusions. Without reframing the debate in this way, there's a real danger that neither side will gain ground and the referendum result will be too close to call, which would be the worst possible outcome for everyone.
For anyone in the mood for a little propaganda, here is something from the Leave campaign:
Brexit The Movie
And something from the Remain campaign:
Brexit: Why You & Your Family Are Better Off In Europe