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What we can hope for from the campaigns for the EU referendum

The date of the EU referendum has been announced, but before we decide how we vote, it’s important to consider how Britain has found itself in this situation, and how the next four months will play out.

It’s been more than three years since David Cameron originally promised an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a decision initially taken in an attempt to stop the rise of Ukip, as well as to calm the Eurosceptic members of his own party. Whether or not the referendum succeeded in doing so, or instead simply poured fuel on the flames, is open for debate. On 19th February, Cameron finally secured his deal in Brussels, claiming that the UK “can have the best of both worlds”. Nevertheless, the Conservative party remains split on the issue. This is nothing new -it was a debate which nearly ripped the party apart during the 1990s- but the ramifications are nonetheless serious, with many senior Tory figures, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, opting to oppose the Prime Minister, and instead backing the Brexit campaign.

Whilst the other major political parties are for the most part united on the issue, the Tories aren’t the only ones suffering from divided loyalties. There are divisions within the Brexit campaign itself Leave EU, supported by Nigel Farage, and Vote Leave, backed by Ukip MP Douglas Carswell, are currently operating as two separate groups, and it is still unclear which, if either, will get the support of the electoral commission and become the official campaign.

What is clear, however, is that if the Brexit campaign wants to be taken seriously, they need to put a stop to the squabbling between the two groups, and actually offer a viable alternative to Britain Stronger in Europe. Equally, it is vital for both campaigns to offer positive visions of what they believe Britain can be, either within or outside of the EU -so far, they have been disappointingly and overwhelmingly negative in their approach.

The clash between Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Fallon on the issue of national security is one example of this: Duncan Smith claimed that being a member of the EU “exposes the UK to terror risks” (owing to its borders being open to the rest of Europe), and Fallon responded that in voting to leave, the UK would be taking a “big gamble” on its security. Whilst this is no doubt an important issue, it feels more like scaremongering than an attempt to actually tackle the problem, with both sides exploiting the public fear of terrorism to gain a few votes. Regardless of whether the tactic works, it isn’t going to help in the long run, and only makes it more difficult for the public to reach a well-informed decision come 23rd June.

A final issue that needs addressing is the dominance, so far, of both campaigns by male politicians in suits. This referendum needs voices, from as many different and diverse backgrounds and cultures as possible, to make it more engaging and relatable. It’s too important an issue to be left to the various fallings-out of the ex-Oxbridge elite. If the referendum campaigns don’t make an effort to engage with voters, to offer positive solutions rather than dallying around in political point scoring, then it’s difficult to see what the next four months will achieve. It certainly won’t be a fair and representative result for Britain.

08/03/2016

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Adam Stokes