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March 18, 2005

How to fix an EU Referendum

Posted by Hector Boffey

A dramatic change in the opinion polls suggest that despite numerous earlier indications to the contrary the British government is within a whisker of obtaining a yes vote in the forthcoming referendum on the European Constitution. Inevitably, our friends Maurice and Gerhard were asked to reflect on the lessons of this wholly unexpected development. Their conversation took place amid the culinary and architectural splendours of La Maison du Cygne in the Grande Place:

I must say Maurice, this change of British sentiment is truly astonishing.

Churlish though it might seem, Gerhard, I must point out that there has been no change of sentiment.

But the latest polls show that the British public is changing its mind about Europe in a quite remarkable fashion and may now say yes in the referendum.

I repeat Gerhard, there has been no change of sentiment. Voters do not change their minds about such matters overnight and for no apparent reason. I have looked into the matter. The reason for the change has to do with the question that was asked.

You mean the polls have been rigged?

You will recall, Gerhard that on the 20th February the British Government published the European Union Bill prior to its second reading in the Commons. This set out, for the first time, the actual question to be asked in the referendum. This differed in significant ways from the question asked by the professional pollsters a few days earlier, and it is this question that is now being used in surveys of opinion.

In what ways did it differ?

Well, the question asked by the pollsters aimed at neutrality.

And the question asked by the Government did not?

I did not say anything so crude, Gerhard. But it is a proposition that is universally acknowledged that you can get any answer you want provided that you frame the question in the right way.

And the Government found the right way?

It was a work of near-genius Gerhard, one which will find a place in the annals of political PR when the names of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson have long been forgotten. First, the UK government briefed the press to expect a blatantly biased question which referred to the immense advantages of membership and the lonely isolation that Britain would faced if it said no. Then it unveiled a question which was brief and to the point, but which displayed an innate bias of considerably subtlety. Hardly anyone noticed what the Government was up to. In fact the eurosceptics gave a collective sigh of relief. The Tories, UKIP, the media - even the Daily Telegraph - said it was very fair question indeed!

How on earth did the Blair government pull this off, Maurice?

By using the wonderfully simple expedient of a slight change to the title of the Treaty. As you know the correct title is the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. This was changed to the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for the European Union. This gives the impression that the purpose of the treaty is to control the affairs of EU institutions rather than to control and limit the powers of member states. Naturally, the Brits are in favour of that. It fits in with Jack Straw's claims that the whole point of the constitution is to keep a check on the integrationist zeal of the continentals and to prevent the further loss of British sovereignty. That is the direct opposite of the truth, of course, but that is entirely beside the point.

Moreover, it exploits the British belief that 'Europe' is something that happens 'over there' and has nothing to do with the British. Now, when I want an insight into the British eurosceptic mind I read a scurrilous little publication called eurofacts. In the latest edition there is a letter from a reader who says the difference between the Government's question and a genuinely neutral question resembles the difference between asking:

Do you approve of the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Mrs Parker-Bowles?
Do you want to be married to Mrs Parker-Bowles?
He is right! Whoever devised the question deserves a CBE, or perhaps, more appropriately, the Charlemagne Prize.

And that little change to the title of the Treaty was sufficient to get the right result?

That little change was hugely important, but there were one or two other other devices that helped matters along. As you will see, by incorporating the word 'approve' in the question the British question employs the well-attested 'yea-saying' phenomenon - the natural desire of most people to say yes rather than no. This is the oldest trick in the pollster's book, but hardly anyone seemed to have notice. Further, the question rather gives the impression that the public are being asked to agree to a constitution that is already in place – that it is being asked to rubber stamp a done deal when in fact, legally speaking, the constitution fails if it is rejected by just one member state. Again, a stroke of near genius!

But isn't there a public watchdog that there is supposed to ensure fair play in the arrangements for elections and referendums.

There is Gerhard, there is. It is called the Electoral Commission. But it is a watchdog that chose not to bite. In, fact it didn't even bark. Instead, it licked Tony Blair's feet. It noticed the change in the title of the treaty but said it didn't matter and pronounced the question perfectly satisfactory.

But what about the Opposition and the rabid eurosceptic tabloids?

The Opposition parties and the eurosceptic press behaved like pussy cats. Had they cried "foul!" the government's strategy could not have worked, indeed it could have left them in a worse situation. This was a high-risk strategy which was justified by the huge opposition to the constitution then apparent in the polls. But it has paid off magnificently.

How do you explain the complete failure of the eurosceptics to react?

Well, Gerhard, I know that the British are said to possess a kind of political genius. It is this, we are told, that accounts for their ability to compromise and to avoid conflict. I think myself that the real explanation is to be found in that 20-mile strip of water between Calais and Dover and a certain obtuseness of mind. I take my hat off to whoever framed that question but the truth of the matter is that the British are not terribly quick on the uptake.

For which fact, on this occasion, we can be grateful!

Profoundly, grateful, Gerhard. To use a British aphorism it may well have saved our bacon. That being so, would you catch the wine-waiter's eye? A glass of Beaume de Venise would enable us toast the British people, and it would also go extremely well with the crème caramel.

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