Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
“That’s enough,” I thought to myself, “I’m leaving the country.” Not like one of those annoying celebrities who threaten to emigrate if a particular party is elected, I should add. I am only going on holiday, but I can’t wait to escape this bloody referendum campaign.
The decision facing the country is of the utmost significance, and I have strongly held views about Europe. I have already voted to leave the EU, I think we should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, and I am not altogether comfortable with our participation in the Ryder Cup team. So why does this campaign leave me feeling so frustrated, disappointed and worried about the future?
The short answer is that the referendum campaign is bringing to the surface everything that is wrong about our politics. We should be debating rival visions for Britain’s future, the risks involved whether we leave or remain, and what we think Britain’s role in the world needs to be. But that is not what this campaign is about at all.
The exaggerated scare stories about the costs of withdrawing are well documented, as are the criticisms of some of the claims made by those campaigning to leave. Issues that are important to voters and therefore appear salient in opinion polls and focus groups – like the future of the NHS – are shoehorned into EU-related stories by both sides. Hackneyed devices such as coordinated letters from business leaders or celebrities are sent to the newspapers. Process stories about “gaffes” are leapt on by each campaign team. And the rhetoric used by advocates of both leaving and remaining becomes more and more violent, frequently in response to the last attack by the other side, but often because a new, aggressive turn of phrase is what will win front page newspaper coverage or lead the broadcast bulletins.
The people on both sides of this campaign are intelligent, thoughtful, sincere and passionate about what they believe in. So why are they fighting these miserable proxy wars, rather than arguing about the substance of this referendum? Why are they not arguing, in serious terms, about the effect of EU membership on our democracy, our security and our prosperity? After all, they almost certainly argue in this serious way when they talk among themselves or discuss Europe at dinner parties with their friends and acquaintances.
The reason they don’t show the electorate the same respect is that almost our entire leadership class feel trapped by the Political Rules of Engagement. These rules dictate that you cannot accept that the opposite team has in any way something like a reasonable point, or you will be quoted selectively for the rest of the campaign – or even the rest of your career – and your words used against you. That is why the Remain campaign claims leaving will reduce our economy to a pile of smouldering rubble, and it is why the Leave campaign does not accept that there is any benefit at all, for example, in the EU’s extradition arrangements, or data-sharing agreements to prevent crime and terrorism.
The rules dictate that presenting total certainty about your proposition is vital, even if the basis for that certainty is clearly flawed. So the Remain campaign presents its offering as the maintenance of the status quo, even though we all know that further EU integration is on the table, and there are plans in place to allow new member states to join the EU, all of whom are likely to be granted full free movement rights. On the other side, the Leave campaign took the strategic decision to state that its post-referendum policy (even though as a cross-party campaign organisation it has no post-referendum role) would be to not seek access to the EU Single Market. This decision was taken, presumably, because if they had said they seek access to the single market, they would have had to concede that, in return, Britain might still need to abide by single market rules, make payments to the EU, or continue to grant free movement to EU nationals. Better to have a clear dividing line on immigration – the Leave campaign’s most important subject – than reassurance about the economy. This is despite the fact that, if the country votes to leave, it would almost certainly be the British Government’s policy to seek access to the Single Market, regardless of which party or prime minister was in power.
The Political Rules of Engagement also dictate that changing what is on people’s minds is easier than changing what they think about a particular policy – so, in the words of a US political consultant, “if you can’t change their minds, change the subject.” This is why, in order to keep immigration off the front pages and their favoured issues on them, the Remain campaign has produced such a long, varied and often contradictory series of claims about the economic effects of British withdrawal. It is why the Leave campaign have been determinedly running stories of dubious quality or veracity about Britain’s borders – even though the details of those stories often have little or nothing to do with the European Union.
The next key rule is that everything must be reduced to a binary choice, which means there can be no room for the consideration of any other matter. So the Remain campaign feel they have to claim that the entire basis for Britain’s national security is our membership of the EU – ignoring small matters such as our nuclear deterrent and our membership of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence partnership. For their part, while the Leave campaign has complained about the difficulties in preventing the deportation of foreign terrorists, it calls the European Convention on Human Rights “a fine thing” , even though it was the ECHR and not the EU that was to blame for the most controversial deportation cases such as Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza.
Ultimately, the rules dictate that the truth or accuracy of what you say doesn’t matter. Even if you have told a whopper, it doesn’t matter so long as everybody is talking about it. In fact, the rules say that the more your opponents try to dispute the accuracy of your claims, the happier you should be – because they’re drawing attention to your issue of choice. That is why the Remain campaign is predicting a recession, a fall in house prices and a collapse in the value of pensions (all of which sound quite dramatic but are in fact surprisingly small given that they also tell us that Brexit could spark World War Three). It is also why the Leave campaign has stuck resolutely to its claim that EU membership costs Britain £350 million per week, when that is our gross payment, not the net sum, and it excludes the British rebate. These methods may lead campaigners to believe they will win their tactical battles, but it comes at a heavy price for trust in politics.
I do not mean to sound weak or lily-livered about the rough and tumble of political campaigning. I have worked on and run enough campaigns to know that they should offer a tough and relentless examination of the propositions made by the rival sides. But the reality of the way this campaign is being fought – and how our politics are becoming in general – is corrosive to the quality of our democracy and trust in government. And it is patently very damaging to the Conservative Party.
It is of course too late now to drain the poison from this campaign, but when the referendum is over – whatever the result – we are going to need to do something to change these Political Rules of Engagement. We need only look across the Atlantic to the United States – where the political culture is even more cynical and the rules even more firmly entrenched – to see where we risk heading. I’ve already voted to leave in this referendum, but if I could vote against not just the EU but against political business as usual, I would do so in an instant.