Fear, Confusion, Frustration: Being An EU Referendum Voter

Phil Mayne is a PhD student at the University of Hull studying International Relations. He is specialising in strategy and military ethics.

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It is easy to become confused about the EU referendum. Both campaigns have manipulated the public’s uncertainty, and made startling claims of doom and gloom. The arguments between both the remain and leave camps have escalated in this way over the last few months, and such methods appear to have given the leave campaign a slight edge over their opponents. How have fear and uncertainty been used by both campaigns, and what impact have they had?

The European Union. Three words that have dominated the news, debates and discussions for the last several months. Week in, week out there has been a new argument and counter-argument about whether or not the United Kingdom should remain as part of the EU. On 23rd June, the people of the United Kingdom will decide where the country stands in relation to the rest of the continent. Will it continue to be a member of the European Union? Or will it step away from its European neighbours? On the 24th June there will be an answer to this question. Until then, there is a period of uncertainty.

Polling Trends

Trends show a turn away from the EU. One year ago, in June 2015, polls put those in favour of remain at 69%, with the Brexiteers maintaining a support base of 31%. The BBC reports that most recent polls give the leave campaign a 5% lead, against remain. YouGov puts this figure closer, with the remain camp holding 43% of the electorate’s support, with leave fractionally behind with 42%. If the polls are correct then it would be sensible to assume that a step away from the Union is on the cards; however if the general election of 2015 is anything to go by, one cannot always rely on polls.

So what has caused this shift towards Brexit? The trends seem to show that the leave campaign has been able to obtain the support of the undecided voter. As of the 5th June, there were still 9% who did not know which way to vote; almost double the gap between the leave and remain. However, just two days prior to this, the figure was 14%. Clearly it is the undecided voter that could wield the power that decides the referendum results. So what deciding factors have won over the undecided voter?

The Use of Fear

This referendum campaign has been notable for its continuous mixing of fear, bias, uncertainty and exaggeration. Both sides have been using it to obtain the support of the undecided; a group of which I am a member.

The Remain campaign have been trying their hardest to make people fear the consequences of Brexit. For example, David Cameron has recently argued that voting to leave the EU could add up £920 to the annual cost of the average mortgage. The Prime minister has also turned up the level of fear, according to the BBC, by stating that an EU exit would be like putting a ‘bomb under our economy.’ Mr Osbourne has also fanned the flames by warning, in an interview with the Sunday Times, that the UK would be ‘poorer’ if it was to leave the EU and there would be ‘volatility in the financial markets.’

The Leave campaign has also used fear and uncertainty as a tool to win support, particularly Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who have turned the level of fear in the leave campaign up a notch. Gove has claimed that the EU is a ‘job destroying machine.’ Whereas Johnson has turned his attention to both the economic and security issues of migration.

Fear has been a successful tool because the whole referendum campaign rests on uncertainty. No one has an answer to the big questions. Would Brexit really be that disastrous? Would remaining in the EU be bad for the UK? Will I be better off financially? The answer is we do not know for sure. In fact, no one will know until we have voted. The referendum is a leap into the unknown; especially for those who do not know a UK outside of the EU. Perhaps even more worrisome is that more often than not predictions are inaccurate.

Mixed Messages

Let us take the key issue of security for example; intelligence in particular. We have seen former MI5 and SIS chiefs battling it out over the referendum. In May we saw Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 between 2002 and 2007, in favour of remaining in the EU; as Brexit would impact on the security of the country. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

“I believe strongly that we would be significantly less safe outside [the EU] because of all the networks, the relationships, the policy exchanges, the determining on data sets, things like fingerprinting, things like European arrest warrant, things like joint research on explosive detections on arms and so on. We are not going to be able to influence that if we are out.”

However, one former SIS chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, came out in favour of Brexit. According to the Daily Mail, Britain would not be any worse off if the UK was to leave the EU. Dearlove, writing for Prospect Magazine, argues that British intelligence agencies “give much more” than they get in return, and therefore will be a vital intelligence player with Europe regardless of the Union. The former SIS chief, writing for Prospect Magazine, made the claim that leaving the EU would actually bolster the intelligence service:

“Brexit would bring two potentially important security gains: the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights—remember the difficulty of extraditing the extremist Abu Hamza of the Finsbury Park Mosque—and, more importantly, greater control over immigration from the European Union”

This back and forth only scratches the surface of one issue. We have seen attacks from both sides, inciting; financial ruin/gain if we stay/remain; a better/worse NHS if we stay/remain; more/less power if we stay/remain; greater/less influence on the global stage if we stay/remain. Arguments about how much we really pay to the EU, and how much we get out. All that before anyone has discussed how bendy a banana should be!

What is to be Done?

At the end of May 2016 Kim Sengupta, defence editor for the Independent, wrote “With less than a month to go before the potentially epoch-making vote on British membership of the EU, the debate so far has been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration.” With one week to go, the debate has not changed. There are still barrages of fear and exaggeration from both sides, when what the undecided voter really needs are facts and promises: clear information from independent sources that sets out the benefits of EU membership against the negatives. The undecided voter does not want arguments, they want promises. Neither campaign has provided any further information, in terms of pledges, that allows us to make a decision. The leave campaign for example argues that the EU costs us over “£350 million a week,” which is “enough to build a brand new fully-staffed NHS hospital every week.” This sounds impressive, but it is different than saying “when we leave, we pledge to give this money to the NHS.” Until we have both facts and promises, the undecided voter will experience yet another week of fear and frustration.

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