We’re less than three weeks into the shadow UK-EU referendum campaign and already companies and business groups have started drip feeding negative warnings about vague threats to jobs and growth into the public debate.
Airbus, JCB and Vodafone are just three of the big names adding their two cents but precisely, who these warnings are aimed at is beyond me given that negative campaigning went down like a lead balloon in Scotland.
None of these arguments are wrong but we need something more to get inspired. Even the most casual observer knows that a large chunk of the UK in EU discussion is about British identity and that ‘red tape’, ‘renegotiation’ and ‘Brussels decides’ are often trigger words to fire people up about the fear of British identity under threat.
They are also side lining the much bigger story about the EU and Britain. In her book ‘Acts of Union and Disunion’, the historian Linda Colley argues that throughout history British identity has periodically organised itself around a series of ‘constitutive stories’ that include liberty, monarchy, the sea, constitutional superiority, islands and (at times) Europe. These stories have been particularly helpful during times of external pressure because they give the often fractious group of different nations a common identity to converge around.
Eurosceptics are great at exploiting these ideas which is why any campaign (and I use this term in the loosest sense) for staying in the EU needs to pitch its battle lines firmly around these areas. This means looking at identity and beyond jobs, growth, reform, regulation, renegotiation, the national interest, immigration or, shock horror, caps on mobile phone roaming charges.
Fortunately, the signs are that the pro-camp is starting to see that economic arguments alone won’t be enough. Any successful pro-EU campaign needs to re-claim and re-frame these ideas by coming up with a better set of stories about why being British means being at the heart of the EU. It doesn’t mean its leaders need to chuck their studies about British jobs and influence out of the window. But it does mean understanding that people need more than a set of data and scaremongering soundbites about loss of growth and trade to get excited.
Whether we’ll get this kind of approach is debatable, particularly given the less than inspiring line up of big names tasked with leading the referendum discussion.
But I do think we need to see three kinds of identity-based stories doing the rounds. I don’t claim to have them all fleshed out but they broadly fall into stories that address the questions – what do I want for me/my family, what kind of country do I want to live in, and what kind of world do I want to live in?
The first story needs to address the issue of ‘small values’ i.e. one that addresses what being in the EU means to people at an individual and familial level. This could be very much tied to the ambition and aspiration (whatever that means) agenda that everyone seems to be getting excited about in Westminster. If we are to believe that Britain is a place that rewards hard work then being part of the club that shapes the rules of the world’s biggest single market of 500 million people is essential. If people are personally ambitious then they need to feel personally invested in the club that is the gateway to that prosperity. And they need to be able to explain that to other people they know.
Then we need one on big values i.e. what kind of country do I want to live in? This story is the counterpoint to the perennial ‘red tape’ argument put out by businesses and addresses a lot of the good things that Brits want in their lives – such as holidays, better environmental and energy efficiency standards for fighting climate change and energy dependence and more control over working hours.
And finally we need one about Britain’s place in the world through the EU. And this is the one about taking a lead and setting common standards on climate change, equal pay, human rights energy security, scientific research and Russia. It’s partly about influence but it’s equally about pragmatism and also understanding why being part of a bigger group is key for economies of scale as well as influence.
Reclaiming and mastering the narrative for the pro-EU camp will be hard but essential not least because it’s starting on the back foot. It will require pushing back against the common garden way of talking about and framing the EU and making British people feel as though they are making an active, deliberate and inclusive choice about being British when they choose to be in the EU.
Will these tales be enough? Possibly not. But Britain’s membership of the EU is about more than the national interest. It’s about our national identity and a vision we can and should be proud to be part of. Those who support it must make their voice heard and must not get side tracked by arguments over reform and re-negotiation.
In short, we must hear the kind of stories that show how the success and values of all Britons – not just Britain – have built and are built through Europe.