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The EU Referendum Campaign is Finally Underway- But Will it Stay Civil?

It's official, we are heading to the polls come June. But will the two camps keep things civil, or will this debate get ugly?

Ben Harris

Naked Politics Blogger 

It’s been over 3 years since David Cameron’s famous Bloomberg speech in which he pledged to hold an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but with renegotiations in Brussels now concluded, a referendum date has been set for 23rd June of this year. The end of the negotiations (and what was a personally exhausting few days for the Prime Minister) now heralds the beginning of a new stage in the campaign. The cabinet battle lines have been drawn and MPs are coming out in their droves declaring their intentions. What follows over the next few months will undoubtedly be a momentous period in British political history.

As exciting as this campaign will undoubtedly be for political aficionados across the country, there is also a danger that the campaign will become locked into a spiral of negativity and bickering. The EU is a notoriously divisive subject and unlike general elections, this is a once in a lifetime event and both sides will recognise that there can be no going back, at least in the foreseeable future.

The temptation for many people on both sides of the argument will be not just to get negative, but to get personal and nasty. For supporters of staying, continued EU membership is crucial for the future and security of Britain. For those who wish to leave, our membership of the EU is holding us back and risks seeing us locked into a sclerotic union, which cuts us off from the rest of the world. With so much at stake, some may see getting down in the gutter as a small price to pay for victory.

There is however, a wider issue here, one which has absolutely nothing to do with the UK’s membership of the EU and that is the perception of politics itself. With public trust in politics and politicians already very low, the last thing that is needed is a campaign of mud slinging. It’s vital that people become engaged with politics and while an energetic, positive campaign might get people more interested in politics, a dirty campaign would undoubtedly do the exact opposite. The crux of the issue is that for democracy to remain healthy, it is vital that the population are both engaged and enthused. If people are disinterested in politics, it is harder to hold politicians to account. In this regard, the upcoming referendum represents both a huge risk and a big opportunity.

At this point, a campaign devoid of negativity is probably too much to hope for. So far, the In campaign have failed to make a positive case for continued EU membership while the Out campaigns (particularly the UKIP-backed Grassroots Out) have not been able to paint a positive picture of post-EU Britain. However, this does not mean that the campaign can’t capture the public imagination and increase interest in politics.

Ultimately, the referendum campaign will be an interesting period for British politics, not just because it will shape the UK’s destiny for decades to come, but also because of the potential it has to spur greater interest in politics. If the campaign is kept relatively clean, there’s no reason why we can’t see a great engagement in the political process and that would be better for everyone. In the words of Jed Bartlet: “decisions are made by those who show up”.

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