S/he who frames the case wins the argument on the EU

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 11.18.44According 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.

In this article


Join the Conversation

9 comments

  1. Lars Becker

    Hi Jon,

    while I think that there’s some truth into it, I think you paint a to black and white picture. Enlightenment reason style thinking is not outdated, it just doesn’t work in all contexts. While it’s certainly true that on TV it won’t have that much impact as good storytelling, that’s not necessarily the case when you have an opportunity to discuss the matters with persons repeatedly or when you have time for a prolonged and thorough debate.

    Then it depends with whom you argue:

    1.) You will most likely have good changed to convince persons with good arguments, who are mostly indifferent and who not yet have an ideological standpoint .

    2.) If you you argue with person who subscribe to ideological anti-EU doctrines it gets much more difficult and it’s quite likely that you won’t convince them. But even then not all is lost: instead of convincing them, you must help them to open their eyes on the implausibility of their own reasoning. That won’t happen if you try to tell them what YOU think, but i might happen, if you seem to accept their statements at first and questioning them up to the point where they can’t answer your questions and might start thinking about answer to them. There’s quite some research that show, that those strategies can work, although they are tiresome and it’s probably much more efficient to focus on more indifferent people first. The best practical guide I read about this topic is Hubert Schleicherts “Subversive Argumentation. Wie man mit Fundamentalisten diskutiert ohne den Verstand zu verlieren.” Sadly there’s no english translation, but I highly recommend it to all who can have a good command over the german language.

    On an individual basis I think reasonable arguments are still be quite strong on the long run. Communication via mass media is much more difficult for a lot of reasons. I think the two most important are:

    1.) We have too complex arguments and too litle time (90 second statements in TV) or not enough room (only a few lines in most print media). In this context I agree with you. Here we need to address emotions and try to be good storytellers (who shouldn’t get so far to make up some fantasies).

    2.) People who tend to a certain political positions have a tendency to seek information in media that subscribe to this position, too. (By the way that’s true for federalists, too, which might be part of the reason why many of us don’t address some real problems as we should). This problem probably has an increasing impact since we have more and more fragmented media, especially in the internet. Our blogs won’t be read by people who tend to have some anti-EU presentiments…

    So maybe we should try more eagerly to use channels which are consumed by people who don’t subscribe to our ideals and use a more ambivalent rhetoric. We won’t convince anybody with messages that say “the EU is the greatest invention since the wheel”, but we might win more acceptance, if we address the (real) problems within the institutional framework and the EU in general more outspoken.

    After all the EU is at least partly more undemocratic than we tend to admit. Our critics have some arguments that ARE quite rational. We need to address those. Fast.

    Best regards,
    Lars

  2. Andras Baneth

    Good piece, Jon, and it was high time that somebody wrote it! (And I’m glad that somebody is you).

    To put it bluntly: you can never argue facts against emotions (see classic religion vs science debates, or industry corporate comms vs NGO campaigns etc.)

    The pro-EU camp should wake up to this reality and start producing videos, speeches and all sorts of media content that hails to the UK in the EU being a powerful combination. Even talk about how much stronger the UK has become on the world stage thx to the EU – and present that in easy, emotional soundbites.

    Kitsch and superficial? Well, if that’s what’s needed to change the hearts of the electorate…

  3. Brendan Donnelly

    I agree with much of what Jon says, but there is a reason why “pro-Europeans” in the United Kingdom like to believe in the eventual victory of reason, namely that it dispenses them from the need to organize and struggle as effectively and ruthlessly in the short term as the Eurosceptics have over the past twenty years. The Conservative Party is the most striking example of this phenomenon. Ever since the political demise of Mrs. Thatcher, the Conservative Eurosceptics have been relentless in their successful campaign to hijack the Party for their views. The ever-dwindling band of pro-European Conservatives have been pained by this process, but done nothing effective about it, consoling themselves with the thought that history and reason are on their side, that nothing is more important than the unity of the Conservative Party and that a Damascene conversion of the Conservative Party back to its traditional pro-Europeanism is just around the corner. In fairness, I should say that pro-Europeans in the other parties have not been much more courageous than their Conservative equivalents. It is much easier and politically more comfortable to call for ill-defined “reform” of the European Union than regularly to proclaim the Union’s virtues and successes. Pro-Europeans in all parties will now congratulate themselves on the small tactical success they have arguably achieved in this first section of the European audit, but it will be a transient success, soon forgotten in the uncontradicted and largely unresisted deluge of anti-European stories from across the spectrum of the British media. Until pro-Europeans act politically with the same determination and strategic conviction as their opponents, Britain’s membership of the European Union will always be in ever greater peril. There is at least an argument for saying that if there is to be a referendum on British membership of the Union, then the longer it is delayed, the less likely it is to be won.

  4. Niall Martin

    The fundamentals are political. The EU is a political framework for holding together states that have never had assured frontiers, but now have, together with a legal system to protect the resulting minorities in these states by giving them rights, thus removing the causes of the wars that plagued them. Got an object lesson on all this on a visit to the Baltic states over the past few weeks, particularly in Vilnius as we learned of the history of a Lithuania that once covered vast areas, but collapsed into a tiny area of the Tsarist empire because they could not sort out a stable relationship with the Poles. The economics is all about making the politics work.

  5. aaron

    Jon

    I was impressed at how Greenpeace plan their campaigns. It would seem that when they use value communications they win, and I guess when they don’t they don’t win.

    Pro-europeans should look @ the great piece http://www.cultdyn.co.uk/ART067736u/Council_Elections_2013.html

    I have found the work of Chris Rose – ex Greenpeace UK campaigns director – excellent. His books on campaigns are superb; pro-europeans should bring him in to help devise a campaign that can win.

    Apologies, I did not know you were PPE, I remember the cadre who dominated the european movement in my youth. Some are now Ministers.

    The anti-europeans have evolved. They are doing well. If pro-european evolve and change they’ll win. I am not sure they want to. Too often, people want to win on their terms alone. I have always taken a more dull approach, if it works do it. Change, experiment, win.

    Aaron

  6. Jon

    Aaron – two points. Would anyone from an organisation like Greenpeace ever possibly want to be involved in pro-EU campaigning? I feel like a kind of pariah on the pro-EU side, and I am not even *that* radical…

    I agree that s/he who frames the debate wins, and this has been true for a long time. But this thinking is slower to penetrate into some areas than others, and pro-EU campaigning seems to be one of the last bastions of outdated, enlightenment reason style thinking.

    (and trust me, Oxford PPEists are not always bad at EU comms, or at least I like to think so, as I was one!)

  7. aaron

    Jon

    As ever,a good piece

    You have just spent some time at sea with professional campaigners, Greenpeace. They capture hearts and minds and they believe in what they are doing.

    I’d take issue with ”
    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. ”

    I would have thought that “who frames the debate wins” has been true for a long time and not just in the UK. The rise of NVA in sunny Flanders seems to suggest the same is true outside the UK.

    Pro-Europeans can choose to win this battle. The European Movement in the UK was usually Oxford PPE hide away happy to recite the mantra of the cost of non europe reports.

    But, the anti-europeans are well funded and very focused/ obsessed about winning. Perhaps some of the campaign leaders from Greenpeace can jump ship to save the UK?

    Aaron

  8. Valéry-Xavier

    You are correct, I am afraid. In both referendum debates in France, the pro-European camp tried to explain what was in the treaties and to use reason while the opposite camp was simply exploiting its complexities to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    While the nationalists, from right or from left, both have a mythological storytelling that talks to preconceptions about the nation learnt in kindergarden and to the fear for change, strenghtened by the difficult economical context, the pro-European side fails to do so.

    One of the reason of this failure in my humble opinion is that it is divided. Among the pro-Eu are activists with a strong commitment to improve the Union and to transform it into a transnational federal democracy ; but also are the spokepersons of the establishment who are satisfied with the present state of the EU and support mainly an improved status-quo. Both of those groups need the Union but the last ones have a very weak argument as the present Union is far from satisfactory, and they are unable to defend their views otherwise than with bureaucratic arguments.

  9. Karen Melchior

    For the rest of Europe, we must be aware that the debate in the UK has a tendency to influence the debate in other European countries as many EU sceptics seem to regarde the debate in the UK as an example to follow. So not only relevant for people involved in the EU political debate in the UK, but also e.g. in Denmark.