Over the past few weeks I have been taking notice of the European Referendum. Something clear, and for me quite irksome, about the Stronger IN campaign is its focus on money. It will be no news to anybody that the campaign has been focusing on the financial benefits of staying in the EU and of course it is an important aspect. Trade, commerce and business are a crucial part of how states function nationally and internationally. But crucial, too, are the cultural, ethical and moral aspects of its people – its heritage; past and continual. Although non-monetary elements of EU membership have not been completely ignored, the spotlight has been so brightly centred on financial arguments that any other aspect of the EU seems effectively dismissed. The approach correlates with what my research revealed about the role of digital media.
The government have tried to encourage people to engage with the Internet through a programme called Go On UK. Like the Stronger IN campaign, Go On UK focuses on money; in this case the financial benefits of digital literacy and Internet use. Digital literacy, argues Go On UK, will empower people by improving their job prospects and reducing bills using online accounts. Like the Stronger IN campaign, some non-financial benefits are mentioned (e.g. social and health benefits), but the main message is one of productivity. The financial narrative is backed by partner organisations who are on the whole linked to finance or business (e.g. Pricewaterhouse Coopers, BT). This seems to give clout to Go On UK’s argument – it legitimises the claims that digital skills can improve the finances of people by using reports compiled by these partners. This is much like how the Stronger IN campaign uses business executives, bankers and economists to argue that we are better off in the EU.
One of the problems with Go On UK’s angle here is that it ignores evidence that there are many who choose not to engage with new digital media and the Internet. One source provides evidence that many do not have an Internet connection based on a choice they have made rather than the cost of connection. Indeed, it is that very relationship between money and digital media that can cause a problem. Without an Internet connection, one is disadvantaged because gas and electricity bills, bank accounts etc. are now difficult to administer without access to the web. Even job searching and benefits now require online access. For many, then, the Internet may easily loom as a gateway to control from the establishment, utility companies and the retail industry. It is not hard to see how the Internet may be seen as removing one’s agency.
I would argue that Go On UK needs to deal with the ways in which online access and digital media present a threat to people’s lives. Communicating the relevance of the web in human, cultural and artistic terms may be a more successful approach and certainly less intimidating.
It is here that I find a parallel with the Stronger IN campaign. With such a heavy focus on money there seems little acknowledgement of the myriad ways in which the EU is relevant in people’s lives. Clearly, financial narratives are very relevant to the issue of the EU referendum, but there is much more beyond this that is seeing very little coverage by comparison. The coverage of this aspect on both sides of the EU debate has been described as scaremongering and we might argue that the Go On UK campaign’s approach is scaremongering, too. On the one hand we have “Use the Internet or you will be financially worse off” and on the other hand we have “Stay in the EU or you will be financially worse off”. The Stronger IN campaign equally fails to deal with the wider issue of how or why the EU may be perceived negatively. We might associate economics with the discourse of the established power structures; a discourse of the eliticised, based on positivistic epistemologies and modernist grand narratives. It is very hard to disentangle the discourse of economics from the financially untouchable – the corporations, banks and chief executives for whom a disruption of the status quo would be uncomfortable. In contrast, socio-cultural epistemologies may transgress against this established discourse of the powerful; how the EU has contributed to the development of UK culture, art, society; how it has protected places from decline; how it has protected the rights of humans and animals; how it has protected the rights of workers; how it protects our health.
Compounding its financial narrative is the visual design approach of the Stronger IN campaign. It employs hard straight lines with its ‘IN’ logo. It uses the term ‘stronger’. The colour scheme is red white and blue, which clearly references the Union Jack (although this combination of colour scheme and typeface seems also BNP-esque to me). These qualities clearly link strongly to a national identity of the UK and I can understand that fears of losing sovereignty are a key issue for the campaign. However, the design is uncompromisingly hard with no rounded lines or metaphor for culture or humanity. Indeed, I would argue that there is even something colonial about the design, harking back to propaganda designs of the First and Second World Wars. The simple blue of the map used in part of the Stronger IN campaign evokes the notion of established economic discourse. While a unifying colour may imply a unified group, the blue colour itself is associated with the Conservative party in the UK and speaks well as the dark blue of corporate suited men (mostly). There is no green of environment and no yellow of the EU stars. It homogenises the continent of Europe rather than reflecting the cultural melange of people and states. Overall the design approach loses the opportunity to talk to people in anything other than a voice of cold economics.
While I will be voting to stay in the EU, I have felt that the Stronger IN campaign is not representative of my own thoughts. Like the Go On UK campaign, I suspect that a more collaborative approach would prove a more effective way of conveying the benefits of EU membership. A ‘human’ approach that recognises the values of people and avoids alienating people through a money-orientated discourse of the eliticised minority.