Arguing to excess: the rhetoric of the EU referendum

'Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess' remarks psychoanalyst and writer, Adam Philips. When fundamentals are at issue, conversations become excessive - and excess, he continues, is contagious. Rancorous debate so often ends in deadlock because adversaries cannot find a common measure to balance their arguments. Excess in speech may even involve asserting principles to restrain the excesses of others. But it is a risky strategy.

The EU referendum was always a risk for David Cameron, being premised on the expectation that the public would find a fair measure to pass judgement. Yet the tone of debate has hardly been balanced: exaggerated claims, exorbitant predictions, ad hominem insults, accusations and counter-accusations of ‘lies’ and ‘scaremongering’ have all been centre-stage. Perhaps such a decision could only ever have been excessive. Each side agrees leaving the EU - or remaining - entails serious consequences for the UK, whether to its economic well being or its democratic sovereignty. To debate that choice means converting a longstanding ambivalence over Britain's relation to Europe. The referendum aimed to overcome that ambivalence by forcing a decision, 'tipping the balance'. Yet the consequence has been less a considered reassessment built upon rhetorical ingenuity than the deadlock of conspiracy theory versus fearful pragmatism.

By looking at the central claims and styles of argumentation on either side, we can see how each locates the source of its own excess in a different place. That excess is then employed to advocate a new balance.

Leave arguments involve identifying the excesses of the others - principally the EU's bureaucrats, ‘unelected’ law-makers, and immigrants - who impose unwanted rules, make unnecessary policies, and take resources without recompense. As with all accusations of excess these are perceived as examples of wilful and extravagant misappropriation. Somewhere along the line, Leave insists, there has been a betrayal. '[I]t isn't we in this country that have changed. It is the European Union', pleads Boris Johnson. With 'ever closer union', the accusation goes, the EU has grown into a vast, invasive monolith that exceeds the simple utility of a common market. British sovereignty is unreasonably restricted, its lawmaking autonomy cast into slavish dependence, and its borders held open to avaricious foreigners.

Leave advocates are not adding emotion to their argument but arguing through it

The excess in the Leave argument is not simply hyperbole - deliberate exaggeration for the sake of effect. The position is formed around an immeasurable sense of grievance that has gnawed away for thirty years. Leave advocates are not adding emotion to their argument but arguing through it. 'Facts' are not hugely important here. What cannot be measured need not be spoken of with care for accuracy: do we send £350 million a week to the EU or not? Doesn't matter. Immigrants make a net contribution to our economy? So what? The validity of the arguments mobilised by Leave stems not from their alignment with evidence but with a frustration that is without scale.

It is no great surprise, then, to find advocates of Brexit conjuring exaggerated imagery to make their case. Michael Gove, for example, chooses the analogy of ‘hostages locked in the back of a car’ held to ransom by the EU. Boris Johnson recycles the vision of Hitler threatening to unify Europe and warns of 'a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation'. Nigel Farage, continuing this metaphor of predatory excess, invokes the more startling (and revealing) prospect of ‘mass open sexual molestation’ by uncivilised immigrants unless we close our borders.

The Leave campaign has been accused of having little clarity in its vision of a post-Brexit future. Would Britain be more like Iceland, Norway or Switzerland? Would it be 'Little England' (minus Scotland) or a plucky independent ever more engaged with the world? Nothing is in any way certain. But any weakness here is, for them at least, not the point. The fulcrum of Leave's argument lies in its aspiration to stem the EU’s excesses. Any future without the EU will suffice. To that end, a variety of its own excesses - including conspiracy theories, deliberate untruths, personal attacks, or gaps in reasoning - are perfectly tolerable.

On the other hand, the rhetoric of the Remain camp turns on the excesses simply of leaving the EU. Much has been said of Remain's so-called 'Project Fear' as a shoddy case premised entirely on negativity. But arguing about potential risks is a standard rhetorical appeal to practical good sense. The government's own information leaflet exemplified its preference for plain and simple truth telling. Whatever its undoubted inconveniences, goes the argument, the EU services us with something that smart opinion confirms we need.

Political debates usually polarise and sometimes that helps clarify what in any conflict is truly at stake

Remain have mobilised a fair amount of experts, official and unofficial, to evidence the dangers of Brexit to the economy, the union, and the UK's military and diplomatic standing in the world. Yet it is probably this reasonable but anxious defence of sensible utility - rather than any visceral attachment to Europe - that weakens its argument. However self-evidently damaging the consequences of Brexit, facts are never enough to make a case (and some still complain there aren't yet enough facts!) For voters already decided, or indifferent, expert opinion is sufficient to divert them from risk. But for those who harbour grievance, rational evidence comes across as patronising. It doesn't help that Remain have unleashed an army of specialist opinions and official statistics to present Brexit as the passage to an unprecedented economic apocalypse and the Leave case as a fantasy world of wilful inaccuracy built on thoughtless prejudice.

The secret to sensible utility, of course, is a fear of uncertainty. What bothers the Remain camp is that this might be an uncertainty that Britons hoist upon themselves. Undoubtedly there is a lofty admonishment visible here, particularly at what is regarded as xenophobia and racism; but also just plain stupidity. Remain advocates argue that the cherished fundamentals of Leave supporters – the often conflated sovereignty, autonomy, democracy, and ‘Britishness’ - are either misconceived or anachronisms. They may be right. But without these measures how then do we judge the success of our relation to the EU?

Political debates usually polarise and sometimes that helps clarify what in any conflict is truly at stake. But when adversaries obsess over the excesses of others they are usually concealing their own lack of confidence in resolving their frustrations. As Phillips puts it, sometimes 'our excessive behaviour shows us how obscure we are to ourselves’. The contagious excess of the referendum rhetoric may well be concealing, rather than illuminating, what fundamentally is at stake in Britain’s relationship both to the EU and to itself.

James Martin is Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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