Driving home late last night after a two day visit with my German colleagues I listened with interest and a sense of déjà vu to news reports of the launch of The Centre for European Influence, the latest Pro Europe cross-party campaign group.
Déjà vu because about fifteen years ago I was involved in a similar exercise, with almost the same cast of characters.
That was called Britain in Europe, which I helped create. There was Tory warhorse Ken Clarke, my old friend, mentor and former boss Peter Mandelson and Danny Alexander, now a top cabinet minister but back then BiE’s press officer. The mission was slightly different then – make the case for Europe AND the European Single Currency – but the thrust was the same; make the positive case for Britain’s active role in Europe, because nobody else was.
Listening to Ken Clarke on The Today Programme this morning, his interview went to the heart of the Pro Europeans’ political and PR problem. Despite the fact that a referendum is a people’s vote, rather than a politicians’, most of the interview focussed on how many MPs actually wanted Britain out of the EU and the prospects for a Tory split. Clarke was sniffy about referenda vs what he saw as the superior form of parliamentary democracy and skirted around the fact that his own leader actually put the case and commitment to an “in-out” vote. (Literary footnote – “in-out” is how A Clockwork Orange’s anti-hero Alex refers to sex.)
The Pro-European side has always looked like a conspiracy of the political, business and social elite against the populist many. On its first outing, it still does. At its launch BiE was fronted by big characters – Clarke, Howe, Heseltine, Mandelson, FTSE 100 chairmen and CEOs. A leading light today is top City spinner Roland Rudd. Ordinary folk, community leaders, were harder to find and engage.
The arguments were difficult too. I remember watching polling research presentations on how our arguments were complex and often about benefits that were seemingly distant from ordinary people’s lives, whereas the anti’s just wrapped themselves in the flag, told jokes about bent bananas and chanted “Save the £”.
A referendum will be a public vote, in the wake of a debate that will be led by opposing political camps and tabloid media yelling. Indeed the public are so off the political class right now, any hint of this being about political elites vs the masses will be counter productive for all sides.
I am a passionate European. I love European culture and creativity, not to mention the food and red wine. Half the business I run is on continental Europe. Many of our clients run EMEA regions of European and American firms. Like many Brits I would love an economy like Germany’s over here right now (FT headline yesterday – German consumer confidence rises). I believe we should play a strong role in Europe, for a range of reasons including it is good for business and its UK employees.
But referenda tend to be simple affairs (look at the slimmed down Scottish independence question) and the public are an independent lot, much to the dismay I suspect of Ken Clarke.
UKIP’s current 15 minutes of fame (though if the referendum goes wrong for the Pro European’s and potentially the PM, their fame might be considerably more than 15 minutes) , the main driver behind the Tory leadership’s new stance, is based partly on the mid-term need for a protest vote vehicle, but mainly that they tap into a recession weary public’s negative emotions on Europe and that twin political hot potato immigration (witness today’s headlines on Polish now being Britain’s second language).
The Pro Europeans have a real communications challenge. Complex arguments vs negative populist sentiment. Media focus for years on the negatives of EU regulations vs positive arguments about influence and business. Concern at high unemployment and immigration from an expanded Eurozone. A potential tsunami of hostile tabloid campaigning. The image of political and business mates vs the emotional appeal of those claiming to speak for the little people and small business.
The Pro Europeans are right to start campaigning early. But the train has already felt the station.