I have just come away from our attempt to apply the methodology of my Radio 4 mini-series Agree to Differ to the EU referendum. Thanks to our Events team and the willingness of Nick Clegg and Conservative minister Andrea Leadsom to (largely) play by the rules I think we delivered a different and better type of debate. I concluded the event by summarising what I thought the two sides disagree about.
It’s worth explaining why we did this; after all the RSA tries to be distinctive and there is certainly not a shortage of EU debates to attend.
In preparing for the event I looked at the BBC EU fact checker. There are pages and pages of assertions from both sides along with BBC judgements on their validity. The problem is that in the overwhelming majority of cases it boils down to what assumptions the sides use. Most of the referendum debate involves the protagonists throwing assertions at each other based on assumptions but rarely examining what underpins those assumptions.
On even the most hotly contested single fact - the £350 million a week the EU is supposed to cost the UK public finances – it all depends on whether you count what the EU gives back to us directly and in subsidy. If you think the net figure is the right one then £350 million is a huge exaggeration, but if you think what the EU gives back to us doesn’t count because we don’t control where that money goes the £350 million figure is justified.
At our event we asked Nick and Andrea to focus on making positive points and I tried where necessary to get behind their assumptions. The aim was to try to get agreement about what the two sides disagree about. And this is what I concluded:
On the question ‘what has the EU done for us?’ we focussed on the issue of sharing power. Nick Clegg’s contention was that the EU has given us safety in numbers and that accelerating globalisation in areas ranging from crime to climate change means we need to share more not less sovereignty in order to protect our interests and be good global citizens. Andrea’s position was that, while sharing power may be necessary on a case by case, treaty by treaty basis, it doesn’t require the UK to share sovereignty through an ongoing governance arrangement which will, she believes lead ultimately to a single European super state.
On the question of what would happen if we left: Andrea argued that people would soon adjust to the new reality and that Britain would end up stronger, particularly in relation to the rest of the world. Nick predicted volatility but also focussed on the long term, saying that the UK would settle down to be a less economically successful and globally significant country. Both Nick and Andrea saw the vote as being a big shock to the EU system but while Andrea thought that shock would be good, forcing the EU to listen to disgruntled citizens and to address its failings, Nick thought it would lead to the fragmentation of Europe - something which he argued is not, and has never been in the UK’s interest.
Finally, on the question of what would happen if we remain there was an interesting irony. Nick Clegg argued that if we remain we must try to lead on reform and make the EU stronger in key areas, but recognised that such leadership is unlikely from the current Government. Andrea agreed in principle that remain must be followed by reform, but, despite being a member of the Conservative Government said that the structure of the EU would defeat any attempt at reform (something she said underlined by the weakness of the Cameron deal).
At the end of the event I offered a summary broadly along these lines and was relieved and gratified when Nick and Andrea were both happy to accept it.
You may think this is all pretty obvious and it probably won’t change your mind (our poll of audience voting intentions showed a very small shift towards leave among a group that continued to be largely in favour of remain), but many audience members came up to me at the end to say they had found the approach genuinely refreshing.