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A valid positive case for staying will always look like project fear

Jonathan Lindsell, 10 March 2016

David Cameron has been attacked repeatedly for scaremongering in his handling of the Brexit debate. It is a charge also levelled at Britain Stronger in Europe and Labour In For Britain. Supporters of the Remain campaign are attacked for their pessimism and exhorted to present a positive case for staying in the EU, if they really have one. Leavers often add that it is unpatriotic to suggest Britain would be diminished in any other scenario – an unnecessary ad hominem approach that ducks the debate.

This is a cynical debating tactic. The most positive possible case for remaining in Europe necessarily contains an element of fear, because Remain’s whole logic is based on the idea that the benefits of EU membership would be lost if Britain left. If Remain did not call Leave’s plans into question there would be no argument at all, as Leave would be free to promise the preservation of all Europe’s benefits without the drawbacks of the real world.

Today Cameron spent a large part of his speech showing the many ways the EU has helped the UK economy. He looked at how high tariffs were before Britain joined the EU, and how they are all zero now. He explained how EU rules had simplified lorry haulage from needing hundreds of pages of paperwork to needing just one. He explained how membership had protected British beef markets, allowed UK banking to expand, and had given British holidaymakers low-cost air travel.

The logical step from someone who genuinely thought EU membership was the best option was to call into question whether these benefits would continue after exit. This he did, perhaps with too much vigour – but I suspect he would have been attacked for deploying project fear even had he stopped there. Instead he examined the WTO option, Norway option and FTA option, suggesting each was on balance worse than membership. Why not? If your friend wanted to jump off a cliff, you would not try to dissuade him by explaining the delights of the clifftop.

The Leave campaign is hardly immune to charges of drawing attention to the other side’s weak spots. Nigel Farage insinuated that dealing with Turkey to address the refugee crisis would give millions of Turks visa rights to Britain. Iain Duncan Smith has said that EU membership exposed Britain to a Paris-style attack. While Michael Gove implied the EU was a zone of festering neo-Nazism, Chris Grayling said, of Cameron’s (admittedly limp) renegotiation package, ‘we may be in a worse situation than we were before.’

It is natural, in debate, to point out the flaws in the other side’s case. Accusing the opponents of scaremongering, as Duncan Smith does time and again, runs the risk of ignoring average voters’ genuine concerns. Worse for them, it may reinforce the idea that there’s something to be afraid of.

Today Cameron’s speech has been accused of dark threats across Twitter even though the prime minister conceded that models for exit were possible. He simply questioned whether they were as good as his preference, remaining in. He said:

“The question isn’t whether Britain could still be a great country outside Europe. Of course it could.”

If that is outrageous scaremongering, you have to worry about the Leave side’s courage. Are they confident their arguments stand up?

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