Those campaigning to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union could hardly contain their glee this week, not because they had scored any particular victories or landed a killer blow that will sway the British public. No, they were chuckling to themselves because the launch of the pro-EU campaign was such a damp squib.
After having the whole summer to prepare, the “remain” in the EU campaign blew its lines and betrayed a nervousness that shows it is far from confident of winning.
Clearly responding to the influence of Ukip, there was not a blue and gold EU flag in sight, instead the stage was bedecked in Britain’s red, white and blue Union flag and the chairman of the campaign, former Marks & Spencer boss Lord Stuart Rose, tried to claim his was the “patriotic” campaign.
Rose and his team cannot bring themselves to profess their pride in the EU but instead hide behind the word “Europe” – calling themselves “Britain stronger in Europe” when the UK will remain in Europe whatever the outcome of the referendum. There are 50 countries in Europe but only 28 are in the EU. With such a lack of belief in his own product any positive reasons for remaining were scarce and any vision about where the UK would be in ten, 20 or 30 years was absent as the same old scaremongering lines were dished out.
The usual tosh about three million jobs being dependent on EU membership was flaunted shamelessly, despite the authors of the original report that came up with the estimated number of jobs related to British export trade denying any jobs were at risk. If the threat is real then by the same argument some 6.5 million jobs in the rest of the EU dependent on exports to the UK are also at risk – but you won’t hear Stuart Rose mentioning that.
Why? Because we can be confident Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are not going jeopardise their workers as they approach re-election in 2017. There will be no trade war, and as the boss of General Motors and Vauxhall said only the other week, being outside the EU will not change their investment decisions. Companies, be they British or foreign, have been lining up over the last few months to reassure their workers and UK voters that they will be staying, come what may. Airbus, JCB, Nissan, Honda, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover and more have all made firm commitments or announced massive investments despite the possibility of Brexit being real.
Stuart Rose is also very quiet about companies such as HSBC and Prudential, which are both known to be scoping the need to relocate their HQs to outside the EU, most probably Asia, due to the growing burden and cost of EU banking regulations.
Then there was the usual puff about being inside the EU to gain influence and to reform it from within. Unfortunately for Rose, the evidence piles up every week about the lack of British influence inside the EU. Since 1996 there have been 72 EU laws opposed by UK governments in the European Council and on every single occasion the UK has lost. It doesn’t matter how pro-EU our Prime Ministers have been, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron have all lost. So much for British influence and defending British interests.
I often bemoaned the negativity of the Better Together campaign in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. It was not that criticism of the SNP’s lamentable White Paper was unnecessary, it was a job that had to be done. Every flaw in the nationalist arguments, every financial hole in their calculations, had to be exposed to public scrutiny.
No, it was the unrelenting repetitiveness of the No campaign’s negativity that was the problem. It needed to be balanced by a positive narrative of why it was worth maintaining the Union, explaining an uplifting vision that turned a No vote into a positive declaration of what people wanted rather than what they feared or were against.
For me that gap in the No campaigning conceded too much ground to the nationalists and from our professional politicians, only Ruth Davidson throughout the campaign and Gordon Brown in the final weeks sought to sell a positive pitch. The outcome was that the result was closer than it should have been and the Union still remains under threat, with the SNP now an even more potent force. Surprisingly, the pro-EU campaign looks set to make the same mistake but from a much weaker starting position. The polling is already suggesting a close result is likely with a large section of swing voters waiting to see what the Prime Minister achieves in his attempt at renegotiation. If he fails to convince then there will be even less opportunity for optimism and positivity from the remain campaign.
We already know Cameron will be denied treaty change which means any explicit assurances or political promises he is given will be completely worthless. It will only take a challenge before the European Court of Justice for such verbal IOUs to be thrown out as without any basis in EU law. It is a weakness Stuart Rose will seek to ignore and why many Tory MPs have already made up their minds to start campaigning now.
The UK’s membership of the European Union is only 40 or so years old, compared to more than 300 years of joint Scottish and English history establishing a strong bond. Pumping out negative scare stories that can be easily refuted will demoralise the “remain” supporters – while the upbeat “we can be better” positivity of “leave” will catch many floating voters, just as the early positivity of the Yes campaign won new support for independence.
Will positivity be enough to swing the UK towards Brexit? It’s too early to say, but Nicola Sturgeon now saying Brexit would not be enough to trigger a second independence referendum if public demand is not there suggests even a lack of confidence from the First Minister. One thing’s for certain, any EU politicians coming over to the UK in the last week of the campaign, fearing the worst and making a last minute “Vow” on what the EU can offer are likely to be treated with ridicule – and no more so than in Scotland.
• Brian Monteith is director of Global Britain