It's impossible to predict the defining narratives of the Brexit campaign

Who will be seen as being on the public's side, the Ins or the Outs?

Laura Sandys
27 October 2015


, CC BY-SA 2.0

The big challenges for all sides in the referendum will be figuring out what that doorstep leaflet looks like. The terms of engagement will take on a life of their own, like an onion, layer upon layer of rebuttal and counter rebuttal. The point at which the onion makes the public cry will constitute the big issues that will become centre stage. It will be galvanised by a zeitgeist issue that emerges from within the public’s mind, and cannot be anticipated.

The NHS and the pound suddenly came into play in the Scottish referendum and turned an ideological issue into a real and present doorstep issue. From moving constitutional deck chairs, the NHS and the pound in your pocket became the arguments – they became proxies for “don’t stay ruled by the Tories” and “the fundamentals of our economy are at risk”. They brought the debate to the doorstep.  Something unforeseen, and some might well say a total red herring, the NHS brought an esoteric concept about the future to the local GP surgery. 

What might capture the imagination in the EU referendum is anyone’s guess. Some will be working to conflate migration with Brexit. I don’t believe that that will survive the ongoing discrediting of its premise, that leaving the EU will dramatically change the numbers arriving in the UK. But this will be well fought territory.

Across all the Brexit advocates comes a familiar trope that voting In is about voting for more Europe than we have today. It is a dangerous trap for us pro-EU advocates. It is being spun to mean joining the euro within three years, full political union and joining an integrationist journey. 'In' is being loaded with a double barrel of Europe rather than the lighter touch model that Cameron will come back with following the renegotiations. This will be a challenge, to shape and set parameters around 'EU Lite' while countering the falsehood that In means more.

While the prime minister will defend our reformed (hopefully) relationship with the EU as 'Europe on our terms', the Brexit crowd has its own challenges and will have to take the public into crystal ball territory. There are too many different visions of what 'our paradise island' will look like to know if the Brexit crowd will ever agree. With three visions – the twilight zone of marginalised Norway and Switzerland, Douglas Carswell's Brave New World or UKIP's 'back to the 1950s' – there is little coherence on where they are taking us.

In any event whatever their agreed end game is they certainly need to be clear about the disruption Brexit would cause. 'Outers' are letting it be believed that we will have a great negotiating platform and will get a fabulous deal from Europe when we have just stomped out of the relationship. The reality is that it will be the remainder of Europe who will define our ongoing relationship with the continent. We will have no say in what deal we get offered; they will sit down and work out what “trade with  Europe” will look like and it will be on their terms. Instead of this high testosterone negotiation with our neighbours we will be kicking our heels in the corridor awaiting their generosity.

Perceptions will be crucial: whose side are the Leave and Remain teams on? To be frank the Remainers have allowed themselves over the years to be seen as on the side of big business. Actually, if Brexit benefits anyone it will be bigger, richer businesses, hedge funds and those with mobile capital. Leaving will take some of the employment “shackles” of state regulation away from capitalism, no doubt quickly resulting in changes to working rights which won’t affect the rich but certainly will impact low earners up and down the country. And would you like to put your maternity rights into the hands of the 'free market' without the softening hand of Europe?

Coming out of Europe would not be the end of the world for Nissan – it can hedge the changes and no doubt its owners Renault would encourage it to reinvest in France. It will be the company that makes the sandwiches for the canteen that has no ability to relocate. So it was good to see that a majority of Federation of Small Businesses members were backing us to stay in Europe, because they will be impacted more than those multi-nationals.

So the questions of who owns which narratives – 'big versus small', 'strong versus weak', 'certainty versus a leap in the dark' – will define the personality of the debate and who is seen to be on the public’s side. And for the Inners, it is important that we remember that Europe is as much about values, rights and freedoms as well as trade, business and capitalism. 


Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData