Is the EU referendum debate reaching its potential?

The EU referendum campaign has treated us to some memorable moments. Many of the politicians on the campaign have become a daily source of entertainment and awkwardness in equal measures, whether it’s the time the Prime Minister was so resolutely dismissed by an English literature student for ’waffling’ during a Sky News debate, or Vote Leave’s Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart pulling a pint together.

In addition to the official campaign messengers, not only have Barack Obama and Donald Trump waded into the conversation about the best way forward for Britain, others have too – such as Matt Damon weighing in on the debate.

But what can be said about the content of the debate so far and its appeal?

We have certainly whizzed through a number of topics, such as economy, trade, jobs, migration, access to housing and public services. The referendum has offered an opportunity to consider foreign policy, security and the UK’s role in the world – issues that tend to take a backseat during general elections. It has also allowed us to openly debate frustrations that are held by considerable numbers of British people and that have hitherto been dismissed by the mainstream parties as too marginal or unsavoury to address.

Whether this has been done with due efficacy and in good faith is however a different matter.

Much has been said of the fear-mongering by both the ’Remain’ and ’Leave’ campaigns. Indeed, we have been told that the apparently likely accession of Turkey into the EU will result in murderers and kidnappers making a home in the UK; that house prices will collapse in the event of a Brexit; that we will be greater targets for terrorism while we stay in the EU; that we will put our safety and security on the line if we leave; that the NHS is better off with the UK ’in’; that the NHS will collapse under the burden of providing for foreigners if we continue our membership.

And, in a competition to drive the point home with the greatest oomph, slack argumentation, dubious numbers, overly simplified slogans and caricatures of possible future scenarios have crept, if not leaped, into the debate.

If I were to pose the question, “are the British people more informed about UK’s relationship with the EU now than they were before the referendum campaign?” I predict the response would in all likelihood range between good-humoured incredulity and downright frustration at the liberal adoption of populist tactics over fostering proper debate.

It is however worth remembering that populism does not equate deliberate misinformation (although it can serve to cloak it). At its democratic best – which, admittedly, we seem to come across pretty rarely these days – it can represent a narrative whereby, despite the increasing gap in wealth and influence and the perceived remoteness of politics from the ordinary citizen, the steering wheel is still in the hands of the British people.

At a time when young people are turning away from traditional political engagement and non-Londoners feel detached from what they regard as metropolitan politics, could the EU referendum debate, warts and all, be the catalyst to reverse the trend towards political disengagement?

I think it falls short of serving as a grand turning point – the nature and the tone of the discussion is simply too unpleasant, its superficiality laid out for everyone to see.

But I would posit that in the long run, it will do more to highlight the importance of thorough, multifaceted debate than it does to put the British public off engaging at all. Although undeniably divisive, the discussion appears to reverberate throughout the country, striking a chord with the millennials as well as the baby boomers.

So if you are in need of a silver lining to concentrate on as things inevitably heat up a further degree or two in the next couple of weeks, and as we are left to contemplate the outcome of the vote as the dust settles after 23rd June – well, that might just be it.

Hanna Nomm

Hanna Nomm

Hanna is the public affairs and events officer at the Oversees Development Instutite
Hanna Nomm


Public affairs @ODIdev. Development, foreign policy, gender, goings-on in London. Views my own.
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