Spinning the Euro

in:

Andy Mullen and Brian Burkitt report on attempts to con British voters into supporting the unsupportable.

Pro-European forces have organised three concerted propaganda campaigns in Britain to date - in 1962-63 to secure public support following Britain’s first application to join the EU, in 1970-71 to prepare the public for accession, and in 1974-75 to ensure continued EU membership in the 1975 Referendum. These campaigns were co-ordinated and part-financed by the government of the day and enlisted the help of sections of big business, the media, trade unions, and organisations like the European Movement. Their aim was to ensure that public opinion did not threaten the Establishment’s pro-European policy. A new pamphlet by Andy Mullen and Brian Burkitt* looks at New Labour’s preparations and strategy for what is likely to be Britain’s fourth pro-European propaganda campaign: to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote in a future euro referendum. 

The official euro policy of this government (and its Conservative predecessor) is that of ‘wait and see’. The impression created is that of a government biding its time and acting in good faith by respecting democracy and due process. Reality, however, is rather different. The government has repeatedly confirmed its commitment in principle to euro membership before the completion of its five economic tests. Furthermore, the government has long- recognised that the biggest obstacle to its policy is the state of public opinion. An ICM poll for the No campaign in February 2002 found that 60 per cent would vote against euro membership, compared to 27 per cent for. The straightforward question of yes or no to membership had been asked 47 times since polling on the issue began in 1992 and the finding of this poll, 60-27 against, was exactly the average result of the last ten years. In an attempt to overcome this obstacle, the government turned to its trusted ‘correcting mechanism’, propaganda and spin, and embarked on an active programme of spending public funds without the mandate to do so to prepare Britain for entry.

In reality, the government’s euro policy is one of ‘prepare and persuade’. This preparation and persuasion has taken the form of institutional and legislative action, two ‘low intensity’ propaganda campaigns designed to prepare business and public opinion ahead of a referendum, and acquiescence during repeated interventions by business leaders and EU officials on the euro issue. A number of institutional and legislative actions support the view that the government is actively preparing for entry. These include the government’s negative response to parts of Lord Neill’s report into party political funding and the conduct of referenda, specifically concerning government neutrality and the use of public funds before and during a referendum campaign; the National Changeover Plan which has already spent millions of pounds to help prepare businesses, government departments, and public bodies for membership; the creation of a new Cabinet Office ‘European enforcer’ post; the development of the ‘Eurogrid’ media rebuttal unit; the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000) which favours the ‘Yes’ campaign in terms of permitted campaign spending; the funding of Euro-Info Centres; and the formation of regional euro forums.

Furthermore, the essential components of the government’s euro strategy have already emerged. The strategy centres, thus far, on ten key elements. These include the government actively campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote; the targeting of key sections of the population (those who are ‘undecided’ or ‘switchers’); pressing the ‘inevitability’ argument; the process of ‘euro creep’ and the related ‘notes and coins’ effect as Britons become accustomed to using the euro; presenting the anti-euro campaigners as ‘extremists’ who are ‘out of touch’; arguing that an anti-euro vote will inevitably lead to British withdrawal from the EU; claiming that a ‘No’ vote threatens trade, jobs and inward investment; highlighting the need for business to campaign in favour; and changing the nature of the debate by declaring that the five economic tests have been met and that the cautious and once ‘sceptical’ Chancellor is now convinced it is in the national interest to join.    

Viewed in isolation, these elements seem insignificant and unconnected. Taken as a whole, however, and considered with the government’s euro strategy in mind, they represent the actions of a determined government that is playing a long game. New Labour’s philosophy, like that of earlier governments on the European issue, seems to be, ‘if you cannot be sure of winning, then rig the game’.  

Unlike the 1975 Referendum - when big business, the media and political parties were almost unanimously in favour of ‘Yes’ to membership - the balance of forces in a euro referendum will be more finely balanced and the result is far from certain. Whatever the balance of forces, however, it is clear that this government, and Tony Blair in particular, is determined that Britain should join the euro. Indeed, in January 2000 European Commissioner Lord Brittan revealed that Blair had privately given an assurance to other European leaders that Britain would join after the next (2001) general election.

New Labour’s euro strategy, and policy of ‘prepare and persuade’, is a high risk one. Whether or not Blair believes he can win a referendum is, in effect the sixth test: the Blair test. A ‘No’ vote would be seen as a personal repudiation of Blair which could spell disaster for the government and the New Labour project as a whole. Furthermore, unlike the 1975 Referendum, the ‘No’ campaign has the backing of a major political party and much of the media. A ‘No’ vote could also electorally benefit the only party that will campaign to keep the pound: the Conservatives. The stakes are high.    

  

* The Euro: The Battle for British Hearts and Minds by Andy Mullen and Dr Brian Burkitt (both at the University of Bradford) is published by Congress for Democracy, 58 Keswick Road, Great Bookham, Surrey, KT23 4BH.