The EU debate is all about inconvenient details, and the desire to avoid them.
This is driven by the clarity of the ideologues, exemplified by the soigne certainty of Nigel Farage and his ilk, who are leading a ‘War on Nuance’.1
“We need to get out of Europe“, “We need to give the British people a say“, “In Europe, but not run by Europe“.
Each of these statements seem clear and straightforward. They are nothing of the sort.
When someone says “We need to get out of Europe” they mean “We need to get out of those parts of Europe I dislike, and retain those, like the free market, which I like, and do so at minimal cost“. Far from getting out of Europe, we would find ourselves in a different Europe, and the discussion revolves around the benefits and the credibility of achieving this.
Similarly, when politicians promise to “Give the British people a say” the question is “about what?”
Do we need a straight in and out referendum, now? How about later? A referendum only if we “hand over powers”. If we negotiate a new settlement, and if so, what sort of settlement requires a referendum and which does not?
If we need a referendum to give powers away, why would we need one when we get some back? Are we going to run a series of referendums, moving first one way then the other, until we exactly identify the Electorates european sweet spot?
All these questions are complicated, and they get even more so when you start looking at the individual changes you might choose to repatriate.
Do I know what legislative competence is needed to ensure a fair single market in tin-tacks? I do not. What if some power I want to repatriate to Britain would, in the hands of a nation prepared to use sly and devious froggy means, allow them to destroy the British tin-tack sector by subsidising their declining Epingle industry?2
I suspect this shift from general to specific explains why, although there is huge electoral hostility to Europe, the number of people who regard Europe as the crucial issue is very small.
In the end, there is no European problem.
There is only an economic problem, and a free movement problem, and a trade problem, and an investment problem, and a social problem. In solving these problems, each has a European dimension – and the precise extent of that dimension is itself a difficult, complex question.
Faced with this level of nuance, it is easy for politicians to cop out, into impossibilism or the mouthing of bland platitudes.
So what should Labour’s response be?
The position outlined by Douglas Alexander, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls over the last few days – effectively “This is not the Europe debate you’re looking for” is surely correct in policy terms.
The critique will be that this position is too hard, too subtle, to communicate to the electorate.
I don’t know about that. I think there’s a core distrust for the big bold impossibility, and those who try to play off broad public hostility to Europe by offering a bland unspecific scepticism will end up being caught on the hook of the need for detail. There have been too many cast iron guarantees, and handbags, and stern promises that have been subsequently been carefully unpicked to be it otherwise.
So why wouldn’t an argument that says: “All I care about is the British national interest. Where Europe can help deliver that, I’ll support Europe, and we can argue the case point by point. But let’s get on with that argument, not piss about with endless structural debates that never really get anywhere and usually end up with the government squirming out of their promises” have some resonance.
It does have the great virtue of being honest. Which is always a good starting point.
The danger is, of course, that asserting the virtue of nuance falls into inoffensive vagueness. It can be easy to decry the lack of a real argument, then forget to actually make a real argument in the process.
To make it work, Labour has to use detail and crunch to expose the idiocy of both the bland and the impossible.
We need to admit openly that there are things we cannot change, even though we would like to, and they bluntly, we accept this as an acceptable price, at least for now.
The detailed, nuance filled position, is where Ed, Ed and Douglas Alexander are taking Labour. It’s closer to where the British people are than most analysts think.
After all, we’d like to get rid of Strasbourg Parliament right? But if the price was the Free market, or a significant number of jobs? No, we wouldn’t.
So why can’t we just say that? Some things matter, other’s don’t.
This is where I think Labour is going, and I suspect it might have rather more electoral appeal than either pretending to agree with the impossibilists in order to curry media favour, or saying as little as possible and hoping no-one notices.
After all, we’ll end up being the only party talking about the things people really care about.
- I nicked this phrase from Stefan Stern [↩]
- Same goes for immigration. For all our politicians say how unfair it was that we allowed all those Poles in, how on earth do you make Europe work without a general principle of free movement? Besides, aren’t we really criticising our ability to manage demographic change, not the change itself? In which case, what has it got to do with Europe anyway if we didn’t manage British Housing demand very well? [↩]