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Fact, ideology and logic in the EU referendum campaign

The EU debate is a minefield, with half-truths and whole-lies coming from both camps. The reason for this, as I understand it, is twofold. Firstly, it is impossible to know what will happen in the event that the UK leaves the EU, or indeed what will happen in five, ten or fifty years’ time if we vote to stay on 23 June. Ergo, objective fact is largely off the table from the get-go. Secondly, the notion of ‘truth’ is tricky in ideological discussions. I recently saw Peter Hitchins make a brief intervention on the EU debate and was struck by his point that the signatories of the Irish Proclamation did not stand on the steps of the General Post Office with a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the impact on the economic forecasts and trade balance of the country. They held an ideological belief and made an impassioned political decision. By the same measure, the reason that ‘facts’ aren’t working as well in this referendum debate as some (myself included) might like, is because it is not a decision that can be based solely on fact. Moreover, in most cases, there genuinely are (at least) two answers to the question at hand. Untangling the accumulation of myths, misnomers and soundbites which permeate the referendum narrative is a job for someone more intelligent (not to mention more patient) than myself. However, in the spirit of ‘have blog, will air musings’, I draw attention here to one incident which has stuck in my mind (and which I noted down at the time) as emblematic of the problem with the EU referendum campaign.

On 3 March, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme conducted an interview with Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, a member of the board of the Vote Leave campaign. Today presenter Mishal Husain put to Mr Jenkin that Sir Peter Ricketts, a recently-retired former ambassador, has raised concerns that if Britain were to leave the EU, France might cease to conduct border checks on those seeking entrance to the UK. Unusually for an MP on the Today programme, Mr Jenkin went on to directly address Sir Ricketts’ point with an equally valid counter-argument, but before he did, he made the following remarks:

‘Find me a diplomat that’s anti-EU…one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in is because we have diplomats who have religiously and slavishly pursued the European integration policy…they all have a certain view…it’s interesting, as soon as they retire they turn out to have this very pro-European view. I’m afraid I think it rather discredits the idea that we’ve got an impartial diplomatic service.’

In the interest of brevity, I will side-step the wealth of nonsense which Mr Jenkin managed to pack around his perfectly reasonable point that the French government is a rational and responsible body and is unlikely to severe all agreements with the UK overnight should we vote to leave. I will also by-pass the irony that I agreed with this central point, and yet he managed to present it and its contribution to his broader position in a way that was so infuriatingly exaggerated, misleading and childish that, in the end, it served only to convince me that I don’t want to be on any team that he is a part of. Instead, I draw attention to Mr Jenkin’s utterly bizarre string of logic which led him to conclude that, since British diplomats are commonly pro-EU, they must have been harbouring this dirty secret for many years and are somehow damaging British interests with their partiality.

I don’t have much difficulty accepting the premise of Mr Jenkin’s concern – it seems quite likely that many British diplomats (and, I imagine, diplomats from most other member states too) are pro-EU. What I find confusing is why he thinks that this is an innate characteristic, a preference which exists and pre-existed in British diplomats independent of their professional or personal experience, as if he suspects that they all went to a secret boarding school where they were drilled in the values of ‘ever closer union’ and prepared for infiltration into the UK’s diplomatic corps, only revealing their true, traitorous identities upon retirement. To my mind, the trend that Mr Jenkin identifies can best, if not only, be interpreted as follows: British diplomats (to accept Mr Jenkin’s premise that they all hold the same view as Sir Ricketts), having spent many years living in and working with the EU, have reached the conclusion that it is a project worthy of our support and participation. Possessing what is probably the most direct experience and expertise in the matter that it is possible to have, British diplomats consider the UK’s membership of the EU to be highly valuable and have chosen to voice this view in the context of the referendum campaign. Essentially, an expert group has presented its arguments for why the UK should vote ‘remain’.

This is an example of precisely the kind of rational contribution which should be being made in the referendum campaign. The view of Sir Ricketts and his colleagues, in light of their experience and expertise, carries value and voters should be exposed to it. This is not to say that it is wholly objective, of course it is not. British diplomats have particular experiences and, to that extent, their position is unavoidably biased. Furthermore, it would be impossible for me to say that I am certain that the argument they put forward is nothing but the unequivocal truth. These things are, incidentally, also true of any view aired by Mr Jenkin and his colleagues in the Vote Leave campaign, by those in the ‘remain’ camp, or by anyone else. However, by making his background known and ‘presenting his credentials’ to the British public, Sir Ricketts has made a valuable contribution which they can scrutinise and evaluate in the forming of their own judgements. Perhaps, rather than it being pro-EU campaigners who ‘lack confidence in this country’, as Mr Jenkin asserted later in his interview, it is those (on both sides of the issue) who exploit the inherently ideological nature of the referendum debate by framing informed opinion as inherent bias who lack confidence in British voters to decide for themselves.

Having finally submitted my thesis and in light of the impending referendum, I digress in this post from health governance – please excuse the misleading platform.

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