THE BLOG

The Frame: Fooling Enough Of The People All Of The Time

28/11/2016 13:04

An important skill in Politics is the ability to frame the debate. A good frame followed through ruthlessly, can give the impression of a falsehood being an absolute truth. Take for example the idea successfully propagated in the 2015 election that a Labour headed government would lead to chaos. There was an element of truth in that due to the coming hegemony of the SNP in Scotland that Labour would struggle to form a British government by itself in the short term. However, the chaos frame was a fabrication. There was no evidence that SNP involvement in a British government would be disastrous, or that it was impossible that Labour could not form a working relationship with another party. However, David Cameron and George Osborne so successfully created the frame of Ed Miliband as a mere puppet of Alex Salmond that Labour struggled to make any significant electoral gains and duly lost the election.

In the referendum campaign, Cameron and Osborne were victims of a frame, with their warnings of a future for the UK outside the EU successfully dismissed as 'project fear.' The reason the 2015 version of 'project fear' against Miliband was so successful was that it fitted with the public's perception of the Labour leader as rudderless. The 2016 version did not chime with large sections of the electorate who had been relentlessly fed anti-EU propaganda by right-wing newspapers for two decades. Cameron and Osborne were losers in their own game, and the former does not even occupy a place in parliament today.

The latest and potentially dangerous frame is the proposal that a vote for leave was an overwhelming vote for so-called 'hard Brexit,' the process of leaving the EU in addition to the single market and the customs union. In the last week 60 Europhobic Conservative MPs, including prominent Leave campaigners such as Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, have declared that anything less than the 'clean Brexit' of ripping up UK membership of both the single market and the customs union would be a betrayal of the wishes of voters. As with every good frame, there is an element of truth in the claim. Many voters will have wanted to leave the EU to control immigration. Full immigration control is impossible within the single market, and, therefore, the votes of such individuals can be assumed to be against single market membership. However, to pretend that every single voter who voted leave was against free trade with the EU, that every leave voter prioritised immigration control above all other considerations, that there is an overwhelming majority in favour of leaving the EU, and that membership of the single market and the customs union was made clear before the referendum vote, would all be massive falsehoods.

Thousands and thousands of words were written and said regarding the relationship between Britain and the EU before, during and after the referendum. Many different positions were adopted, often by the same politician with little time elapsed between the change in viewpoints. Therefore, it was difficult to be exactly sure what information people would have used to judge how to vote in the referendum. The question on the ballot paper was simple, but the issue itself is very complex, and a mountain of often incorrect or contradictory claims provided very little clarity.

Therefore, it is best to simplify the analysis and focus on the main pieces of information from the Leave campaign, namely the declarations made on Vote Leave's website, and statements made by Leave campaigners during the TV debates on BBC and Sky News. In all of these occasions leaving the single market was not made apparent. The customs union was not mentioned at all, and it is doubtful many voters even knew of its existence when voting. Leave campaigners took two different approaches either claiming Britain would get a bespoke deal with unfettered single market 'access' or vaguely insisting that Britain would join a European free-trade area, without actual defining the organisation in question. Boris Johnson adopted the first approach in the big BBC debate while Michael Gove quoted word for word a statement from the Vote Leave website that, "There is a free-trade zone from Iceland to Turkey and the Russian Border and we will be part of it," during the Sky News debate. The bespoke deal remains a wishful fantasy, while the Gove statement very much implies single market membership.

Further, opinions polls after the referendum do not reveal a majority in favour of controlling immigration as the most important aspect of leaving the EU, simply a majority of leave voters favouring immigration as a key concern. The mandate for leaving the EU was far from over-whelming, 16.8 million people voted to remain a member of the Union. It is relatively easy to work out what these 16.8 million voters wanted, no change to immigration rules, no change to single market membership, and no change to membership of the customs union. Therefore, it would take only a handful of leave voters, roughly 1 in 20, to have imagined a Britain outside the EU but still in either the single market or the customs union for a majority to be in favour of single market membership.

This is not so hard to imagine. The clear as mud stance of the Leave campaign and the significant minority of Leave voters who did not vote based on immigration concerns makes this a distinct likelihood. And thus far from the situation framed by Brexit Ultras, there is at best a split society on single market membership, and in all probability a majority in favour of the relationship.

So there is every right to demand scrutiny of the Brexit process, and every right to resist the declarations that the issues have already been decided. Remove the frame, and Brexit is what it is, a complicated, messy process with a far from an absolute majority in favour of any particular type of leaving process. From this viewpoint, a second referendum following negotiations is not so much desirable as absolutely essential.

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