Football, Fear, and Facebook: Who’s to blame for the appalling EU referendum campaigns?

Last week, Britain discovered the tragic news that Brexit may lead to an exodus of European stars from our beloved Premier League. The end of freedom of movement would mean players like Dimitri Payet, Samir Nasri, and David de Gea could no longer work in Britain, causing chaos for clubs up and down the land. Some reports suggested squads could be cut in half, with the worst affected clubs – including Newcastle and Watford – set to lose up to a dozen players. Some fans were driven to question whether life is even worth living anymore.

Firstly, this story was absolute nonsense. Hundreds of non-EU foreign nationals play professional football in Britain as sports stars find it relatively easy to get work permits. Furthermore, the suggestion that the likes of Juan Mata and Simon Mignolet would be kicked off the white cliffs of Dover on 24th June (the day after the referendum) ignores the reality that Brexit could actually take two years, or even more. Secondly, and more importantly, the suggestion that Britons will make the biggest political decision for a generation based on the effect it has on their local football team is frankly insulting. Or is it?

It would be both tempting and easy to slam the politicians and campaign organisers who pedal this sort of drivel, the gutter press tabloids which print it, and the collective distain with which such groups view the general public. However, stories like the one above may not be examples of ignorant elites talking down to the man on the street but rather symptoms of our modern media climate and lack of political education. Moreover, we have to consider whether the public are actually more influenced by what happens to their beloved football clubs than by complex and abstract arguments about economics.

The quality of political debate has been no higher from those campaigning to leave the EU. The list, recently released by Vote Leave, of serious crimes committed in Britain by fifty EU nationals has rightly drawn sharp criticism, having been described as “scaremongering of the worst kind”. The suggestion that EU migrants are accurately represented by a tiny minority of criminals verges on outright racism, but may well be an effective argument. For a nation which, just a year ago, rejected Ed Miliband at least partly because he looks a bit weird whilst eating a bacon sandwich, it’s surely possible we might base our EU referendum vote on such poor quality arguments.

The dreadful campaigning from both sides of the EU debate is certainly encouraged and perpetuated by the media. Striking headlines about “Brexit Football Shock” or the “EU’s Most Dangerous Criminals” slipping through our borders are undoubtedly more effective than tedious and complex pieces about the possible effects of Brexit on trade, not to mention sell more papers. The nature of social media, heavily utilised by both leave and remain campaigns, also encourages soundbites and simplification, often at the expense of intelligent, reasoned debate.

Perhaps a more fundamental contributor to the low quality of the EU debate is the lack of critical thinking and political education in British schools. Since the referendum was announced, audience members on the BBC’s Question Time have regularly complained that they feel ill-equipped to take such a decision. This, from people engaged enough to apply for tickets to a political debate show. If we want a higher quality of debate – and believe me, we do – we need a higher quality of education, to help individuals critically evaluate the relevant arguments and make informed decisions. Continue to ignore this and we’re stuck with oversimplified arguments and shameless scaremongering.


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