According to Philip Stephens in the FT “Facts finally collide with ideology on Europe“, as his column gives solid backing to the FCO’s Balance of Competences review. The reports are “shorn of ideology and political judgments” he says, while “Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Philip Hammond were among cabinet ministers who protested at the even-handed approach of officials”. Commentators like Olaf Cramme, Sony Kapoor and Simon Nixon weigh in on the same side on Twitter. Jonathan Fryer goes further, saying the review exposes UKIP and Tory lies.
On the other side Retiring Violet and Bruno Waterfield blast the line about the report being shorn of ideology. In the meantime Douglas Carswell, excelling himself even further than yesterday, writes in a blog post on the website of The Daily Telegraph that pro-EU civil servants are so biased that this will assist with his case to get the UK out of the EU completely. Farage has called the whole exercise ‘a cynical and futile PR exercise‘, which lavishes a bit too much praise on the communications management of this whole thing in my view, but you see his point.
For me, the very title of Stephens’s piece shows the dearth of understanding of how UK political communications works on the pro-EU side – the word “finally” in the title is the crucial one. It is not as if only now, suddenly, facts have been confronted with ideology. This is what has been happening for years and years already, and it does not work for the pro-EU side. Stephens could produce 10000 pages of reports on how the UK economy depends on Britain being in the EU, but it is not going to convince a single person who is convinced at heart that the future of the UK as an independent nation is being called into question thanks to its membership of the EU.
Look too at the Britain in Europe campaign in the late 1990s that tried to do precisely this sort of thing – to cook up an essentially practical case for Britain’s membership of the Euro, versus the emotive, national sovereignty case of the antis. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then the pro-EU side is getting close to insane.
To put it another way, to assume that if you put the ‘facts’ out there and people will believe your case does not work. Look at the reactions of Waterfield and Carswell – they argue that nothing can be shorn of ideology (I agree), and instead of playing the facts they play the process, alleging an essential bias of the people conducting the review.
The parallels between all of this and the predicament that faced the Democrats in the 1990s in the USA are interesting. Democrats assumed that facts would speak for their side, while Republicans were framing the argument in terms of people’s beliefs. This week in the UK, Stephens and the authors of the reviews are the Democrats, and Carswell and co are the Republicans. Which way of approaching UK-EU relations is going to have greater popular resonance?
UK politics is post-enlightenment, post-fact and post-truth – s/he who frames the debate wins the argument, and it’s high time the pro-EU side woke up to this reality.