The forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is starting to look more and more like a ‘will they, won’t they’ story from a soap opera. To say the narrative is complicated would be an understatement.
David Cameron has committed to a renegotiation with Europe. There are assumptions but no certainty about what Mr Cameron is seeking to achieve, as Downing Street hasn’t formally set out a checklist of ‘red lines’ for the Prime Minister. At the same time, Britain’s position with Europe is currently something of a matter of inconsequence for many of Mr Cameron’s fellow European leaders that it was literally relegated to after-dinner discussion at an EU leaders’ summit last week. Europe simply has more pressing concerns at the moment with the migrant crisis and the slow motion car crash of the Greek economy.
Meanwhile, things are far from certain domestically for Mr Cameron when it comes to Europe. A number of his own backbenchers are mobilising to push for an EU exit. And most recently, one of the principal contenders for Mr Cameron’s seat – London Mayor Boris Johnson – has intimated that he might be willing to campaign for Britain to leave the EU. Such is BoJo’s popularity, which largely transcends population demographics and party affiliations, that this alone would pose an enormous threat to the UK’s continued membership of the European Union.
What is clear is that there will be a British referendum – even if it’s unclear who will be on which side of the debate, and whether Mr Cameron will get some, little or all of what he wants from a renegotiation. And as the picture clears, and the battle lines become apparent, both sides will need to learn the lessons of the Scottish independence referendum.
There were three big lessons from Scotland last year. From the independence side (i.e. the SNP), the lesson was the need to have a back-up plan. This was most evident when then-leader Alex Salmond was asked what would happen if there wasn’t a currency union with the UK. Mr Salmond repeatedly refused to consider the possibility, revealing a substantial part of his economic platform to be a proverbial straw man and allowing the ‘Better Together’ campaign to launch wave after wave of attacks on Mr Salmond’s economic credibility.
But this was also a major weakness of the unionist effort. Its leaders hammered the point about currency union and economic prosperity, flogging a horse that was long-since dead. And for all the validity in their argument, they managed to lose the attention of voters. The near final nail in the coffin of the unionist campaign was to largely ignore an argument about why the name of their campaign was true. Quite simply, they made the case that Scotland would be worse off without the rest of the UK. They did not argue to anywhere near the same extent the benefits of continued union for Scotland. The result was a largely negative campaign that did not fully combat a more positive message of independence by the SNP.
Both sides (whatever they might be) in an EU referendum need to learn these lessons. Their arguments must be based on fact, and must consider contingencies if their initial position is successfully challenged. Both sides must refrain from focusing their arguments on a single point. And above all, both must commit to showing why their view is good for Britain, as opposed to simply highlighting the flaws of the other side.