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How to make the argument for Europe

Alan Finlayson


First published in Renewal Vol. 13, No. 1 (2005)


Politics takes place when people come to see events, ideas, even themselves, in a different light: when our aspirations and our notions of how to meet them are changed.


In the not-too-distant future the British people will officially be asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?’

If asked tomorrow, many would say no, although most would probably not be sure what the question is actually about. The responsibility for such public uncertainty and hostility towards the EU and the constitution is widely shared. But some responsibility must be borne by those who have failed to make a strong case for the EU. Rather than creating a constituency of support for the EU, many Blairite Europeans seem to be waiting for one to appear, as if by magic. Ministers routinely defend the EU and the constitution negatively: it is not as bad as people say and it will limit the powers of the EU. By accepting that EU power is ‘a bad thing’, that it must be constrained, such arguments cede all ground to their opponents. As a result the case for Europe is almost always a defensive one and a defensive case cannot win.

For instance, on 21 June 2004 Tony Blair said he would use his Commons statement on the constitution to separate ‘myth’ from ‘reality’. He did not. He stuck to the line that the constitution will limit the EU. He spelled out in detail what the constitution was not. He said little about what it is. This lack of positive argument is indicative of political attitudes towards Europe. But it is also an example of the pusillanimous nature of contemporary political argument. When a campaign for the referendum is devised, opinion polls and focus groups will be closely studied, and well-trained political marketers will employ the most up-to-date software in preparing their PowerPoint presentations for the people who pay them. But few, if any, will take time to think about how, in general, political arguments work or how, in particular, the argument over Europe is structured.

Politics is an art. But it is not the art of the possible. It is an art of persuasion: of developing good arguments and presenting them well. In British politics, however, the arts of rhetorical argumentation are shockingly moribund. Most British politicians are not interested in winning real arguments. They have been inducted into a political culture concerned only with winning votes, and often it appears more trouble to win the argument than to find a way to fix the headcount. For example, you can bribe or bully people into voting for you. In the form of promising or denying promotion this is a venerable commons procedure. The Labour Party certainly has a grand tradition of forsaking argument in order to win votes by, say, changing the time of the meeting, packing the room with newly signed-up supporters or simply fixing the block vote. Our constitution gives a Prime Minister every opportunity to fix the time of a vote and the tactic of bribing an electorate prior to an election (or at least promising to do so) is so widely used that it might as well be part of the constitution.

But support won through such methods stands on very unstable ground. It is only as strong as the last deal, the last bribe, the last fix. It comes with no real conviction. The ease with which it is lost is one reason for increasing electoral volatility. If people believe that what you are doing is right, if they understand and agree with your case, then they may well support you even when things get rough. But if they were never convinced in the first place they will, quite rightly, leave, the moment a better offer appears. To gain support that is positive, not grudging or given only by default, you have to win the argument. If you only win a vote then each time the question is raised you will be back at square one. This is what has happened with Britain’s endless argument about Europe. If the country is to move on with regard to Europe (in whatever direction) the argument must be had once and for all. And that means, firstly, thinking very hard about what it is we are arguing about.


What are we arguing about?

When an argument begins it is not always clear exactly what it is about. Very often people argue past each other. In such cases what is obscured is the actual point of dispute. The point of a dispute, the ‘bone of contention’, is the issue which has to be resolved if the argument is to reach a conclusion. Looking for this can help us establish what exactly an argument is about. But, importantly, this is also part of the argument. In any dispute, the side that succeeds in defining the argument secures a great advantage.

Roman orators such as Cicero sought to define and explore the different kinds of argument that take place in legal and political contexts. They identified arguments of ‘conjecture’, ‘definition’ and ‘quality’, each of which concerns a different question: if a thing is, what a thing is and what kind of thing it is. Each is particularly relevant to the British debate about the European Constitution. Thinking about them can help us establish what the argument is about, and help us establish what our argument should be about if we want to win. As we shall see in a moment, British argument about the EU constitution mostly takes a conjectural form.



Imagine you are accused of stealing some money. Your first line of defence might be to deny the allegation outright. You might say that the money wasn’t ever stolen. You might simply deny that you had anything to do with it. This is a conjectural argument. It concerns whether or not a thing is the case, whether it has happened or not. What is in dispute is whether there is anything to be disputed at all. Somebody has said that something has happened. Someone else says that it didn’t. By making your denial, forcing the point of conjecture, you force your accuser to provide proof. He or she must show that there has been a crime. And he or she must show that you are responsible.

This is the most common form taken by the argument about the European constitution. It is also the form of most argument about the EU. Eurosceptics say that the constitution will weaken British sovereignty, or that the EU already has done so. They say, as it were, that a crime has taken place. The government, and pro-Europeans, respond with denials. They say that sovereignty has not been given up. They say that the ‘crime’ did not happen. The point over which there is controversy is whether or not Britain has lost sovereignty to the EU.

For the government or pro-Europeans this is a risky argument. The denial directly refutes the opposition argument. But it accepts the parameters of that argument: that sovereignty may or may not have been lost. The initiative is thus handed to the opposition, which can then bring forward evidence of the missing sovereignty. And it can. It can hardly be denied that something has happened: an agreement has been reached, a constitution has been put forward. It is therefore reasonable to assume that something is at stake. Pro-Europeans cannot look credible if they are trying to maintain the claim that nothing has changed, that the constitutional convention merely rearranged the deckchairs, that the EU in general makes no great difference to the UK. Since something has clearly happened, and the opposition can produce the many pages of a constitution to prove it, the conjectural dispute cannot contain the argument. Things inevitably slide on to an argument about definition.



Suppose, in response to the accusation of stealing some money, you accept that the money was taken and that you had or have it. The argument can then come to rest on the question of whether or not what you did was stealing. You might claim that it was ‘borrowing’ or ‘finding’. What is in dispute is how your action is defined – the name we give to it. Such an argument over definition also comes up regularly in British debate about Europe. The government argues that agreement on the constitution represents a great victory. It will not mean a loss of sovereignty. It is a successful defence, a diplomatic triumph.

This is a more promising line of argument for the government and for pro-Europeans. But it too has dangers. Yet again the argument is shaped by the opposition and still concerns the winning or losing of sovereignty. To refute the pro-European case the opposition only has to find one example indicating the transfer or proposed transfer of power from the national to the European level. And that, of course, is not hard to do. The EU project has always involved shifting control for some policy areas from the national level to the European level. If the argument continues to concern definition in this way then pro-Europeans will find it hard to win it.

There is, however, an alternative way of engaging this argument at the level of definition. It can be argued that in participating within the EU, and in embracing the constitution, our weak national sovereignty can, and has been, enhanced. It can be argued that we gain power when we pool our resources with those of others. It can be argued that in the era of globalisation, when national states find it hard to regulate international corporations or track international crime, sharing sovereignty is the best thing to do. When this argument is made the point of contention, the issue that is controversial changes. Now the definition of national sovereignty is put into question. And this is potentially a powerful argument. It throws the debate about definition right back at the opposition. In redefining national sovereignty as isolated, weak and a handicap, it forces anti-Europeans to defend the status quo rather than just rely on it. But this sort of argument is only ever loosely gestured at by the government. This is odd, since it would fit with the general Blairite ideology of globalisation and interdependence in a ‘post-national’ world. In any case, we are led onto the form of argument that would be of most advantage to the pro-Europeans: an argument about quality.


Arguing about quality

Let us go back to the hypothetical theft case. Suppose you admit that you had the money. You admit also that you didn’t find it or borrow it but that you took it. Things look bleak for you. Then you explain that you stole it for a good reason: you needed the money to pay for a taxi to take someone to hospital; you wanted to buy food for some starving people; you had to pay the ransom for your kidnapped child. Now the dispute is no longer about matters of fact. They are no longer in dispute. The money was stolen. You stole it. What is in dispute is how we evaluate those facts. The questions now concern the quality of the act.

In a purely legal dispute you might hope to be able to make the first two kinds of argument: conjecture and definition. You would prefer to show that the crime never happened or that, if it did, you had nothing to do with it. Having the charges against you dismissed is the most desirable outcome in a legal situation. But political argument is not legal argument. For a political argument it is always necessary (and usually advantageous) to engage with issues at the level of quality. This is because political argument is not usually concerned with straightforward matters of right and wrong, true and false. We have politics precisely because there are many disputes that can never be resolved by an appeal to the facts alone. Facts alone will not help us decide, once and for all, that the state is better than the market. Facts alone will not help us decide, beyond dispute, that fox-hunting is not a legitimate cultural practice but a cruel vice. Facts alone will not help us decide, without equivocation, that benefit claimants should be required to seek work before getting a penny. Facts will not resolve these disputes because they concern ethical evaluation. They require judgements of quality: judgments that say a particular act was undertaken, or will be undertaken, for reasons of good quality. Legal arguments concern the past. They seek a decision about what did or did not happen. Political deliberation concerns the future. It is about what might happen if we pursue a particular course of action: go to war or stay our hand; cut taxes or raise them; sign up to Europe or not. This is why arguments of quality are fundamental to political argument.

When it argues about Europe, the government almost never engages with quality. Perhaps Blairites have won too many things by forcing through votes. Perhaps they are too enmeshed in the logic of ‘there-is-no-alternative’. Probably, they are scared, afraid that the media will misrepresent them. Consequently, on the issue of Europe, they prefer to avoid an argument that requires admitting that involvement with EU has changed British sovereignty. But if it were to define the argument as one of quality (rather than definition or conjecture) the government, and pro-Europeans in general, would win a distinct advantage. The debate would stop dissolving into the measurement of sovereign authority or power. It would come to concern the general principles behind European Union. It would be about the general vision of the future shared by positive Europeans. And in a straight fight between those advocating a future of international cooperation and those with the intention of ‘wrecking’ the EU, the former would have all the advantages. People prefer positive arguments to negative ones. People can be convinced to support actively a programme that makes clear what it is trying to do for the future. Good politics, unlike the arguments made by Eurosceptics and the government, is never pusillanimous.


Meet the challenge, make the case

If it were to succeed in shifting the balance of the argument onto issues and judgements of ‘quality’, onto the question of what our involvement with Europe is actually for, the pro-Europeans would still have to make their positive case. What then are the positive reasons for participating in Europe that can be put across simply to a mass audience? Many commentators think that to win such an argument one has to show the personal benefits of membership or the damage caused by refusing. The Guardian (21.06.04) quoted a foreign office official saying (rather incoherently): ‘We have got to align the concerns that people do have with what’s actually in this thing’. The Observer (20.06.04) reported that the Centre for European Reform believes the campaign for the EU must stress its practical benefits for individuals (such as parental leave, cheap flights and warning labels on allergenic food). Now, it is a good idea, in any argument, to link the specific and the general; to show how something big is linked with something small. That way you get all the advantages of an argument with which most people will be familiar and which may already have been won. For instance, when you argue that you stole the money to feed some starving people you shift the argument about your specific action onto the stage of a bigger argument: one that concerns the rightness of charity. In so doing you get to use all the arguments in favour of charity in favour of your action. This is why it is good to link specific arguments with general ones. But in British political culture this principle is completely misunderstood.

One of the biggest myths in present-day politics is that people will only respond to something if it appeals to their individualised interests. This belief derives in part from neo-liberal individualist ideology. But it mostly derives from marketing. If you want to sell something to somebody you want to show that your product will benefit them. You seek to join the general virtues of your product (it tastes good and is nutritious) to specific virtues your customers may desire (it will make your children healthy and they will love you more for buying something so tasty). As marketing has spread into politics politicians have come to believe that their only choice is to appeal in the same way: to show that their policies will satisfy self-interest simplistically understood. But there is little evidence that, in politics, this is true. People are in general aware that when they make a decision about a large-scale political matter they are exercising a judgement over a general principle, and that issues and values broader than immediate self-interest come into play.

Theories of rational choice (the belief that people always act out of a narrow assessment of self-interest) suggest that rational people won’t vote and won’t join collective organisations. But people do vote and they do take part in social, political and voluntary groups. People support or oppose foreign wars, for example, because they see their self-interest as connected with a larger principle (be it pacifism or liberation). In politics, rather than show how the particular narrow interest of an individual is linked to your policy, it is better to show how your individual policy is linked to a much broader general proposition about what people’s interest actually is, and thus to a general framework of values and principles.

In the US, the linguist and rhetorician George Lakoff has shown how the American right has sustained power through a process he calls ‘strategic framing’. The Republicans have succeeded ideologically not by appealing to self-interest but by connecting particular claims (about welfare, the family or national security) to a universal ethical framework which is then linked to traditional national values such as fairness and compassion (see The mistake often made in British politics is to think that the issue at hand (the EU constitution, education policy, foreign policy) must be joined with the self-interest of individuals rather than with general values. If we recognise this mistake, then the case for Europe will cease to concern the benefits it might bring to individuals’ pay packets and instead become about how being part of Europe is connected to a general view of how we might like the future to be.


Reframing the dispute

Given the ignorance of many people about the historic contribution to European history and culture made by the UK, and given too, that part of our national mythology concerns ‘standing alone’, making the positive and qualitative case for Europe will be lengthy and not always easy. If the argument is to be won, the first challenge is to shift the debate away from whether or not sovereignty is lost and on to the general ‘quality’ of being part of Europe and part of the world. The second challenge is to link a positive case with general values and principles, such as those of solidarity, interdependence and Britain’s contribution to the western world. In making this case, supporters of European Union will have to show how theirs is a better expression of national values than that of the opposition. To do that they will need to redefine Euroscepticism.

Scepticism is a good thing. It is hard-headed and reasonable. It is, we like to think, very English. By contrast, the Europhile sounds like he or she is under the spell of a powerful perversion. And that, we imagine, is rather French. But all this can be reframed. Instead of talking about Eurosceptics we can talk about Eurocowards. They are scared of Europe. They think that it will take us over and tell us what to do; and rather than argue with it, they want to run away. They bring shame on our nation by suggesting that we, the British people, cannot cope with political engagement; that we cannot win over others and make our view prevail. We believe in leading the European future. They believe we lack the courage and strength to do so. We believe in stepping out into the world and playing a part in it. They believe in hiding away at home where nobody can see us. We believe that we have much to offer Europe and the world. They believe we are a spent force.

Elements of this sort of argument are already in play and have been used by Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Denis McShane to portray the signing of the constitution as a victory, as we saw in relation to arguments about definition. This argument needs to be polished and taken further through its combination with general values that concern the quality of the future of our country and of the EU. Denouncing the Eurocowards, who are afraid of the future when, as everyone knows, the British are afraid of nothing, could be part of a powerful rhetorical appeal in favour of Britain in Europe. But before it can be made, the government must find the courage to make a political argument.



Have we forgotten what politics is for and how it can be done? There is a tendency on the left, still, to regard political outcomes as expressions of a certain state of affairs: the balance of class forces or the demands of political economy, for example, or perhaps the play of the electoral cycle and certain voter interests. Under the influence of the neo-liberal Blairite consensus many seem to believe that society and politics consist of nothing more than individuals exercising their pre-set preferences in an endless game of consumer choice. Politics then appears to be about nothing other than accommodating to those preferences; and the highest achievement of political art is the focus group that helps you identify them.

People do make self-interested rational choices, and do have pre-set preferences; there is a balance of class forces, and the electoral cycle does generate certain probabilities. These are part of the terrain but they are not the essence of politics. The essence of politics is the transformation of preferences. Politics takes place when people come to see events, ideas, even themselves, in a different light: when our aspirations and our notions of how to meet them are changed. That may be a rare event. But it happens. And it happens through the winning of political arguments. The tools manufactured by psephology, political polling and marketing are certainly of use but they need someone to use them. And that someone is the politician – an artist of opinion who, through artful argumentation, constructs a case and makes an appeal that brings into being a constituency of support. It would be good if there were such an artist in British politics today.

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