How to talk to the British about identity and Europe

Posted on 4 March 2016

When people head to the polls on Thursday 23rd June to cast their ballots in the EU referendum, they will not be making a decision about Europe, but about Britain. Advocates for both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ will, therefore, need to have an account of Britain and Europe that people recognise and embrace, if they want to get a hearing from voters on the issues of the referendum. Despite this both sides can struggle to show they understand, and at times even show that they like, modern Britain.

Britain has always seen Europe differently. Post-Suez, the nation found itself in a position where it had lost status and economically trailed other countries in Europe, ensuring that we had a rather different ‘psychological contract’ with the European project from other European nations.

Hugo Young, in the opening line of This Blessed Plot, encapsulates the traditional pro-European narrative about Britain:

‘This is the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the history she could not forget with the future she could not avoid’ (Hugo Young – This Blessed Plot)

This does not, for various reasons, offer the foundations for making a good case for the EU to most Britons:

  • Firstly, it would claim Britain’s European future is unavoidable – that there is no alternative. The fact of this upcoming referendum renders this assessment as false. An argument for this future must be won over other alternative choices.
  • Secondly it asserts Britain’s sense of history as a barrier to the future we want. This is contrary to British culture: the rise in popular history in Britain suggests a country becoming more rather than less interested in its past. The pro-European case has to embrace Britain’s past rather than running from it: it would be difficult in any country to win an argument about the future by telling people to become less attached to their history, but there is perhaps nowhere this would be quite so true as in Britain.
  • Lastly it suggests what needs to change is British identity and the British attitude rather than the imperfect European Union. This is hardly likely to be a winning argument for the ‘In’ side.

The Eurosceptic argument, by contrast, has great confidence in how it talks about history, democracy and sovereignty. It’s hard not to imagine ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ playing in the background as you read this from Michael Gove:

“In Britain we established trial by jury in the modern world, we set up the first free parliament, we ensured no-one could be arbitrarily detained at the behest of the Government, we forced our rulers to recognize they ruled by consent and not by right, we led the world in abolishing slavery, we established free education for all, national insurance, the National Health Service and a national broadcaster respected across the world”

Yet Leave struggles with identity too. Many Leave voices characterise recent history as one of betrayal. They can appear pessimistic about modern Britain, underestimating the pride that most people still feel for Britain today. The impression that Britain and its sovereignty have in some way been abolished by the EU – that our decisions at General Elections have somehow been irrelevant – doesn’t make sense to most of us.

A sense of nostalgia has long driven the Eurosceptic cause, but it is clear there could be no victory without appealing to the groups who like, and feel part of, modern Britain. The ‘Leave’ campaign needs to secure a broad coalition, from the ‘left behind’ voters to those who seek to charge ahead into a bright new future.

Identity is a problem for both sides. The pro-Europeans are unsure of their case: there is a desire to make a positive case for Europe, when what is needed is a positive case for Britain, an account of why it makes sense in terms of British history and British identity to stay in the EU. Actor Emma Thompson rather summed up the identity struggles of some instinctive pro-Europeans when, asked about her view on the EU referendum, she described Britain as:

“a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort of Europe, I mean really a cake-filled, misery laden, grey old island.”

– hardly a rallying cry for those who feel proud of their country and are wondering where its future lies in relation to Europe.

If ‘In’ sets out its European future in implied opposition to Britain – if it comes across as wishing we could just be a little less British – it will find little favour with the voting public. The ‘In’ campaign should instead be seeking to occupy the very territory that ‘Out’ considers its home turf – competing for association with the emotional symbols of these islands’ history.

The most popular national identity in these islands today is English. Many pro-Europeans are unaware of this and think English identity doesn’t matter to people. Expecting pro-Europeans to embrace English identity may be too much, but until the ‘In’ campaign overcomes this barrier they won’t be speaking about the identity that matters most to most people in Britain.

The challenge for Eurosceptics is to show that they understand and like modern Britain as it is today. Their advocates need to appeal beyond their core support. The threshold needed for victory becomes even harder to reach without the support, for example, of ethnic minority Britons, many of whom could be natural Eurosceptics. UKIP Migration and Financial Affairs spokesman Steven Woolfe believes they will be crucial, and could be the driving force towards a ‘Leave’ victory:

“In the upcoming Brexit campaign the ethnic vote will not only play a crucial role in whether the UK Leaves or remains – I believe it will actually lead the Leave campaign to victory.”

But there remains a barrier of mistrust, with some of the most prominent anti-EU voices remaining toxic to this group. The ‘Leave’ campaign has work to do to persuade non-white voters it really is sincere about being an inclusive voice.

Both Leave and Remain advocates will need to overcome these challenges if they are to speak to Britain in a way that gets them heard. For Leave, that challenge is winning the trust of the majority who are comfortable with modern Britain as it is, not as it once was. And if Remain doesn’t quite wrap itself in the Union Jack, it will at least need to shrug off the blue and yellow of the EU flag and speak to the identities that matter to most Britons.

To do so, voices on both sides may have to wrestle with some very strong identities that they hold themselves, but that only a minority will share – as proud Eurosceptics or pro-Europeans. Most voters still remain undecided or ambivalent on the referendum debate. They will, however, confidently identify themselves as English, Scottish or Welsh – or simply as British.

A version of this article appears in How (not) to talk about Europe, published by British Future in January 2016

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