Friday, 11 November 2011

Narrativewatch: David Cameron's 'blame Europe' strategy

In the second third of this parliament, the one now beginning, and whose opening will be marked by Osborne's autumn economic statement on 29 November, Britain's economic woes will be laid rather less at Labour's door and rather more at that of the eurozone. That's why Cameron and Osborne are now constructing a very obvious narrative of continental European failure, from which Britain is thankfully (as they depict it) exempt, but which nevertheless continues to put the UK economy at risk. 
In some ways, blaming Europe is not as easy as blaming Labour. Labour is a stationary target, and both coalition parties can unite in dumping on it. Europe, by contrast, is a moving target that divides the coalition parties and emphasises their differences. But the political beauty for the Conservatives of blaming Europe is big. It goes down well with Tory activists. It allows Cameron and Osborne to frame their engagement with the EU as candid friends and it chimes with public opinion. And in particular it provides a ready-made and not entirely specious excuse for the failure of the government's economic strategy in the first third of the parliament.

In today's Guardian, Martin Kettle has a very perceptive article about the Cameron-Osborne narrative that "Europe is to blame" for Britain's economic woes.

Kettle's analysis picks up on the main purposes of political narratives. He brings out how they work.

First, narratives provide an account and an explanation for current problems, complete with heroes and, more importantly, fall guys and villains.

Second, they enable listeners to frame options for the future and work out what they need to do next -- in this case, to keep giving the coalition, or more importantly, the Conservative component, the benefit of the doubt.

"Blame Europe" has many of the properties of a successful narrative. It's easy to grasp and not completely implausible. And it plays to an emotional reflex that is very familiar to a large section - almost certainly a majority - of the British public.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have a hard time grappling with this narrative. Labour's best bet will be to pin the blame for Britain's economic problems on Cameron and Osborne and to argue that they have not kept us out of the Eurozone crisis.

Nick Clegg will have little choice but to blame the former Labour government -- unless he wants to recast his party's storylines about the EU. But will the public have moved on by 2015?

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