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September 18, 2001


Winning the Euro referendum: A guide to public opinion and the issues that affect it

Mark Leonard and Tom Arbuthnott (ed.)

Winning on Patriotism
Chris Powell

On the face of it, things look pretty dire. Any reading of the opinion polls over the last quarter century would conclude that the “default” state of public opinion is anti and getting more so: something like two to one against nowadays. With evidence suggesting that most campaigning does little to convert settled opinion, but only consolidates existing inclination, the referendum could seem to be a foregone conclusion.
However, I’m reminded of a colleague who was asked to conduct research throughout the world on what people thought about New Zealand. He concluded that the answer was that they didn’t. I don’t think that the issue of Europe, and certainly the issue of the euro, occupies a large space in voters’ minds and I’m sure that most of them respond to pollsters with just knee-jerk answers. The British don’t much like foreigners, and will probably never love Europe, but they are perfectly capable of seeing the need to be part of it. Indeed, on the one occasion they have been asked, voters changed their minds and gave membership of the EEC a good majority.
Once the referendum is called, the issue becomes real, and the electorate start to think about the rather complex issues, there is good reason to believe that most will see the sense of joining. But the issues are complex, so for the campaign to be successful much preparatory work will be needed to improve public understanding of some of the fundamentals. The campaign itself will be short and sharp; too short to educate. That job must be started now.
The key issues are patriotism and economics
So many aspects of our heritage conspire to make us not just patriotic but suspicious of any close association with other countries, especially our unique folk memory of empire and our survival of two world wars without the European experience of invasion. While this can only change as new generations replace older ones, effective campaigning will need to go with the grain of these feelings.
More positively, there is a popular force as strong as that of British patriotism, which is the desire for financial well being, especially for one’s children. People can see that the world is coalescing. They don’t like it, but can accept the inevitability of joining a wider trading group to secure the economic growth they want for their families. The little evidence we have – the 1975 referendum – is that, when it comes to making a decision for yourself rather than complaining about the government’s, the head wins over the heart. So this battle can be won.
However, the campaign can’t start until the referendum has been called because people won’t focus on the decision until they know they are being asked for one. Even so, much of the eventual success will depend on how well the ground has been prepared in advance.
The two great difficulties which must be addressed are the public’s incomprehension about the way business works (currently they can’t see the cost of being outside the euro) and their suspicion that the pro-euro side aren’t really fighting for Britain (thus aren’t on their side).
At present, the electorate can see what they are losing – the pound – but have no sense of what they really stand to lose – going from a level playing field to a considerable competitive disadvantage. It is no good just to claim this, it has to be made a real, live, and in the end, personal, issue. For a start, every time a major investment decision comes up, whether an inward investment decision like Nissan or an indigenous company like Corus, the problems of currency uncertainty should be raised. The risk to jobs must be hammered home. However, while this does cause concern, most don’t see much risk to their own jobs. The issue must be given a wider context of the prosperity of business in general and, having done that, this must be connected to individuals’ own prospects for financial well being
Voters are aware of their own ignorance on the euro: they need to understand, as business people do, the risk inherent in making investment decisions when the future value of the currency is unknown. All countries in Europe have been in the same boat through having to take that currency risk. But that is now changed, and only Britain will have to take the risk. It will no longer be a level playing field. We have to find some way of giving people the flavour of a business trying to guess at the future worth of its output in order to decide whether to invest, and then some flavour of having to do that when your competitors don’t need to. It is fundamental to winning the economic argument that the grave disadvantage of this is widely understood. Business has got to explain this to voters if they want voters to understand the economic disadvantage of not being a part of the single currency.
But it’s not only peoples’ heads that need preparing, it’s their hearts as well.
Somehow it has become as though to join anything European is tantamount to “giving in”, that to be pro-British is to be anti-European, when, actually, the opposite is the case. The very language of “joining” makes it sound as though we are all going to be on the same side and cease competing: that we are putting our faith in foreigners to look after our interests. An unlikely proposition.
It creates the suspicion that those in favour of anything pro-European are a bunch of wet liberals wanting to sacrifice the national interest to some theoretical ideal of peace and brotherhood, when actually, it’s a way of making sure that our competitors don’t get an unfair advantage over us, that we are still in a position to compete and to win. In the lead up to the campaign the pro-camp must be sure to use this language on all occasions. Rather than surrendering an inch of national advantage to other countries, we are pushing ourselves into a position where we can better score wins against their business to the benefit or ours. Everything must be couched in the language of national gain.
There is one area where we already have some advantage: the widespread feeling that membership is inevitable. The antis have been able to represent joining as a change, indeed as a loss. We must argue that, in fact, joining is just another step along the road that Britain embarked on, to its advantage, a quarter of a century ago. Change would lie in reversing this flow of events, and people do seem aware of this. Against the hysterical noise of “save the pound”, the pre-campaign campaign needs to hammer home the message that the policy that has brought us prosperity in the past, and the people who have brought that prosperity, are preparing for the inevitable next step to continue to secure that economic success. It is not joining that is the risk, it’s turning back. Events will help this case, peoples’ holiday experience of the euro after its introduction in January next year will make it feel more normal. Inward investment decisions overtly and publicly made on the assumption that Britain is to join, will help the case that, if business growth is to be sustained, we must not cut ourselves off from our main market.
Before mounting any campaign to join the euro, therefore, an enormous amount of activity is needed to get people to see the problems for business in making investment decisions without knowing the worth of the currency (when your competitors do), to understand that membership is to allow us to better beat our overseas competitors and that joining is the “no change” option. To enter the referendum itself without these conditions would make it very difficult to win, so much of the campaign must take place before the campaign proper has started.
There will be no referendum until the five economic tests have been completed. This process, in itself, will give a terrific boost to the campaign. Gordon Brown has been careful to set himself apart from any wild euro enthusiasm and for that reason his judgement of the advantage of joining will carry real weight. More than that, though, his successful stewardship of the economy combined with his recommendation that conditions are right for entry will be convincing to an electorate unsure what to think.
I suspect that the really determinedly antis and pros are a pretty small minority, that most voters will be up for a proper consideration of the case. When, and only when, a referendum has been announced, will most people genuinely engage their brains on the issue and, when they do, the thinness of xenophobes’ case will be quickly evident. In this non-ideological age, it is clear that most voters in General Elections focus on which of the parties (and leaders) offer the best prospect of future financial well-being for them and their families. The referendum will be no different, except that voters will feel less certain of their own ability to judge the case for themselves and thus more reliant on their estimation of the calibre of the proponents on each side. Here the pro- camp will have an enormous advantage. Almost every politician and business leader who they rate will be ranged on the side of joining and the “starry-eyed” brigade will be advising against. At every opportunity, on TV, on posters, in campaign literature the electorate should be reminded of the contrast in quality and range. It is quite difficult to entrust your life savings to John Redwood and his friends, rather than to Gordon Brown. This would take a degree of blind bigotry that, happily, not many possess.
The strength of the campaign proper depends to a large extent on having already dealt with peoples’ political fears successfully and having gained some understanding of how the disadvantages of exclusion impact on business and thus voters’ personal financial well being. These two strands come together in a stance that we are the team that has been, and seeks to continue to be, winning for Britain.
It will be a major task of the campaign to ensure that people are able to translate the cost to business of being outside the euro to the costs to them and their families.
Business itself must make the case that we cannot afford to allow exclusion to erode our national wealth. Trade Unions must say it, the leading members of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Parties must say it, and, as with all good campaigns, they will need to keep saying it in simple phraseology from now until voting day. If the ground has been properly prepared before the campaign starts it should be a message that is meaningful and powerful. It must be the constant refrain of the campaign that business cannot be expected to win if it has to fight with the millstone of currency fluctuation around its neck. From their own experience voters can see the waste involved in changing currency. Every time they go to Europe they know they waste money and time on changing out and then changing back. Personal experience and business risk must be elided in their minds.
It will be important that the pros attack the other side and don’t just try to make their own case. Seeing the risk in the other’s case has always been a more powerful electoral strategy than only speaking well of your own side. The risk of exclusion from one of the world’s strongest currencies, the hopeless credentials of their leaders, and the backward looking nature of their case must all be brought out. More than anything, the illogic and unsustainability of being in Europe and not a part of Europe’s currency must be exposed. If we don’t join the euro we will, in the end, leave Europe altogether. Part-time membership will soon become non-membership. The antis are wonderfully split on this issue and probing will bring this out. But the real strength in testing the issue is, perhaps, less the substance of the case and more the exposure of the great variety of opinions actually held amongst the antis. The one great electoral sin a party can have (other than the unelectable leader) is to be divided. The antis will have both: the unelectability of the leader will be self-evident but the divisions will need constant harrying to bring to the fore.
The antis have a massive lead in the polls and can tap into the strong emotional attachment we all have for our country. It is an enormous task to turn this around, but I don’t think most people have really begun to consider the issues yet. All we have here is the British “default” position of not wanting change. In overcoming that, ignorance is the friend of the antis and understanding the friend of the pros. A successful campaign is going to depend very much on the quality of the preparatory work in the months or years leading up to the campaign proper. This can’t be left to any one organisation, it needs business, unions, and politicians all to come out of the closet and start to vigorously build the understanding that must be in place if the campaign itself is to be a success.

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