The Blog

Arguments vs. Slogans: Debating EU Membership

One can work through all of these things and come to the perfectly honourable conclusion that, on balance, it would be still be better to leave. Yet thus far it is striking how few people seem able to make that informed, reasoned case and to argue for it calmly and persuasively.

There are many good arguments for reforming the EU; there are a few perfectly credible ones for leaving it. The media focus on the splits and personality contests in the Conservative Party that has dominated coverage of the early phase of the Referendum campaign is such that most such arguments as have been aired hitherto have been those of the Right; by far the more compelling fundamental critiques of the EU, in my view, actually come from the Left. Hopefully, as the initial excitement settles down, some of those perspectives will be discussed too.

Yet no matter what one's starting point, and no matter what one wishes to argue for, those arguments have to be made. What has been most striking about the early days of this debate is how remarkably poor the powers of reasoned argument of those on the 'anti' side of things seem to be. Last week, for example, on BBC Question Time, the broadcaster June Sarpong locked horns with the businessman Theo Paphitis. Sarpong listened politely and attentively to Paphitis' opening remarks, in which he affected an 'on the fence' open-mindedness. What happened when Sarpong's turn came? A few sentences into her articulate, thoughtful, intelligent defence of EU membership Paphitis was interrupting her angrily, shouting her down, and behaving in a manner that was disappointing to those of us who think of this programme as one of the few remaining television fora in which one sometimes gets some half-interesting discussion.

When the leading protagonist of the 'Out' campaign Lord Lawson was interviewed on the BBC R4 'Today' Programme, the dynamic was similar. The presenter, Nick Robinson, asked some pointed questions about the lengthy difficulties that might ensue if the British government were forced to renegotiate free trade agreements with Europe following EU withdrawal. The questioning was trenchant and insistent, for sure, but no more so than is standard for the 'Today' programme, and nothing that a figure as experienced and distinguished as Lord Lawson should not be able to handle. Yet no sooner was he wrong-footed by a question about Canadian experiences that he was unable to answer confidently than he resorted to telling the interviewer that he (Robinson) must be having an off-day.

Outside of the familiar circle of media-trained professional 'out' campaigners - the Iain Duncan Smiths of this world - it seems that the advocates of 'Brexit' struggle to find spokespeople who are familiar with the basic rules of debate and can offer a reasoned, articulate case in conversation with those of a different view. By and large, to seek to discuss the issues with someone instinctively in favour of exiting the EU is to be confronted with political emotion, visceral resentment and inarticulate anger rather than measured argument. Godwin's Law has gone into overdrive.

The aggressive emotiveness that characterizes much Eurosceptic comment is interesting in its own right, and has much to tell us about the character of British political culture these days. Yet if we are going to have an intelligent national conversation about membership of the EU we need reasoned arguments from both sides, not argument versus sloganeering that masquerades as a contribution to debate. Listening to one's interlocutor; not interrupting them when they are speaking; showing respect for the reasoned views of others, even when one disagrees with them; entering into the discussion imagining, in principle, that one might leave it having had one's mind changed, however convinced one is of one's initial point of view - these are the ground rules that many advocates of 'out', in particular, would do well to remember.

The quality of discussion might also improve if we distinguish more firmly between an argument and a slogan - 'getting back control of our borders' is a slogan that denies the complexities of a mobile world, not an argument that addresses them. Likewise, a commitment to distinguishing between fact and proposition - 'there are too many immigrants' is a proposition, not a fact - would work wonders. Acknowledging that the language one pretends one is using as a common sense descriptor of the world in reality carries ideology that is open to critical challenge would also help - the phrase 'the problem of immigration' is the most obvious example.

Above all, many of the 'Brexiters' clearly need to learn what evidence-based argument is. From my perspective, this involves understanding something meaningful of the history of the European Union, in its various iterations, and something of twentieth-century European history more generally too. Before reaching for slogans about the First World War, claiming that British and imperial soldiers died defending our democratic freedoms, and that staying in is therefore somehow a betrayal of their sacrifice, 'Brexiters' might go back and look up how many British women (let alone colonial subjects) had the vote in 1914 (the answer: none). Before refusing the idea that the European Union had anything to do with an agenda of preserving peace they might look at the origins of the European Coal and Steel Community and at the biographies of its protagonists - Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Paul-Henri Spaak and co. - and see how profoundly shaped by the experiences of two world wars those men were. For these people peace, prosperity and national security were all part of the same proposition, not incompatible alternatives. At the same time, they were hardly naïve idealists, but rather were pursuing very hard-headed agendas of what they saw as national self-interest. Similarly, 'Brexiters' might work out the historical trajectories of, and the differences between, the federalism agenda (arguably now a fading vision) and inter-governmentalism (how it actually, in practice, works) and re-think their slogans about a 'Super-State' as a result.

One can work through all of these things and come to the perfectly honourable conclusion that, on balance, it would be still be better to leave. Yet thus far it is striking how few people seem able to make that informed, reasoned case and to argue for it calmly and persuasively.