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Take Two: the Second Referendum and the Game of Frames

I received my call to write this article, covering a debate on the Second Referendum in collaboration with LSE’s own Debate Society, under intriguing circumstances. Initially hesitant to write about an issue so polarizing as Brexit, one day, scuffling out of the library as it began to close, I came across Debate Soc’s Hamza Chaudhry. Realising the main doors were shut, we sat down and deliberated. The debate, which Hamza would be chairing, was Thursday the 10th’s political contest between Richard Braine, UKIP leader and Thomas Cole, the Head of Policy for the People’s Vote and the European Movement. 

I will analyse this debate around three pivotal frames that were put forward within the contest. The first example covers the highly controversial debate around Tommy Robinson. 

Frame 1: Richard Braine is a racist

To understand Thursday’s debate we must first understand its competitors. Richard Braine, representing the side of ‘Leave’ in the second referendum debate, is the current leader of UKIP. Educated at Eton College, Mr Braine has been politically active since the 1990s, always maintaining a strong, anti-EU stance. UKIP’s centrality towards the overall Brexit debate need not be overstated. 

On the other hand, Thomas Cole, Head of Policy for the People’s Vote and the European Movement, is a staunch supporter of the EU, alongside being (obviously) a strong proponent of a second referendum. Cole is also an LSE alumnus, having completed his masters’ degree at the LSE, in Global Politics in 2006 to 2007. He is returning to an institution that shaped his political outlook, and opened him up to the possibilities of global political interaction.

Cole: You said online that Tommy Robinson was a political prisoner. You click on Tommy Robinson’s site, and on his site it states that Muslim gangs go around the country raping underage children. Do you think that Tommy Robinson is a racist?

Braine: I don’t (crowd gasps). What particular example of Tommy Robinson being racist can you give me?

Cole: What particular example of Tommy Robinson not being racist can you give me?

Braine: That’s a ridiculous statement. How about ‘when Tommy Robinson puts on his underwear in the morning he is not being racist’.

(laughter)

Cole’s response to Braine is where he fails. Likely rattled by previous brittle interactions between the pair, Cole is too reactive to Braine’s frame and is subsequently overcome within this interaction. There is no need for Cole here to seek to create a new frame against Braine. 

Cole’s resulting frame can easily be taken reductio ad absurdum: a technique often used in debate to highlight the fallacy within one’s argument by taking it to its extremes. By highlighting that there are some actions Robinson undertakes that are clearly not racist, such as “put[ting] on his underwear in the morning”, Braine highlights the absurdity of Cole’s frame, even soliciting laughter. This moment of levity, and brief victory for Braine highlights not only the power of the frame, but the power one can hold within a debate when utilizing it correctly.

Frame 2: A Second Referendum is pro-democracy

The second frame I wish to analyse is more fascinating however than the ‘racist’ frame, which often proves toxic for all involved.

The argument surrounding a second referendum is fascinating due to its ambiguity. On the one hand, the ‘Remain’ side argues that as a second referendum poses a clear example of letting the people decide once more upon Brexit, to not undertake it would be far less democratic than to have the vote. On the other hand, ‘Leave’ argues that a referendum on the UK’s membership has already occurred, and its result was decisive: to go against it would be to go against democracy:

Braine: After the 2017 both the Tories and Labour stated that they would honour the referendum. 85% of the population voted for MPs that stated that the vote should be honoured.

Cole argues against this by using the competing frame that A. The UK public now prefers remaining in the EU to leaving it and B: A referendum is vital to solve the current impasse within parliament, and the current volatility and conflict around Brexit.

Cole: People change their minds all the time, we are seeing more and more MPs who are seeing reluctantly that a referendum will the best way of solving this problem. I think regarding Parliamentary democracy, Bercow…is trying to hold up the sovereignty of parliament. If you want a North Korean version of sovereignty then you are not engaging with anybody.

This argument for a second referendum’s legitimacy will never be reconciled. Due to the nature of these competing frames, no matter how many facts or arguments Leave or Remain throw at each other regarding parliamentary process, the outcome of the first referendum or parties’ manifestos, the truth remains that no clear result can come from arguing over such an abstract concept as democracy. 

 Frame Three: Brexit will cripple Britain economically

Interestingly, the most concrete economic arguments made by both Braine and Cole, were put forward when I questioned them as to how Britain would come together after Brexit. To paraphrase Braine and Cole, from a hypothetical Brexit scenario, each saw the vindication of their own arguments: for Braine, the elevation of Britain to a global economic powerhouse, for Cole, the destruction of the British economy as we know it. 

Herein lies the problem: if an issue as supposedly mathematical and facts-based as economics can be so emotionally driven, what chance does one stand of making any sense from the current Brexit debate? 

Cole: Already Liz Truss is complaining about the US overreaching power. Sure if Brexit goes through you will have to accept rules where you will have no say.

We used to be one of the largest growing economies around the world and now we are not… The people from around the UK who will be affected around the country will be working class, middle class.

This argument is subsequently rebuffed by Braine, who argues that just like predictions of doom around Brexit have not been actualized, the same turmoil predicted for a post-Brexit Britain will also not be seen:

Braine: Our country is a big bear with big claws and our political class are denigrating our situation. We’ve got the best universities, we’ve got the world’s top financial centres…we don’t have to cower and suck up. 

Regardless of political persuasion, one must agree that it is hard to break the Brexiteer frame of Britain being “a big bear with big claws”. Who after all desires to argue against their own nation’s strength?

A proper analysis of the frame can only arise in conditions amenable for such a debate. If Braine and Cole had utilized the sword instead of the scathing remark, the battle-axe instead of the barrage, there would be no analysis to make, and no interesting things to learn. We live in a blessed age, where disagreement does not lead to a duel, or the guillotine, and in times like these, it would be remiss of us not to thank the political gods for placing us in an age that does not persecute or imprison dissenting voices. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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