The Bob the Builder Theory of Britain's EU Referendum

Brits will soon be asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” Why that wording matters.

David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s newly reelected prime minister, has made good on one of his campaign pledges: Under legislation unveiled Wednesday, by the end of 2017 Britain will hold a referendum on whether to retain its membership in the European Union. The bill included the precise question that will likely be put to voters. Here’s what’s being proposed:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?

The phrasing may seem fairly logical and straightforward, but there’s a lot going on with these 11 words. The word “remain,” for example, was added after British election authorities learned that some people weren’t aware that the U.K. was a member of the EU in the first place. And the choice of “remain a member” rather than, say, “leave” allows those advocating for staying in the EU to present themselves as the “Yes” campaign. That, in turn, could benefit Europhiles.

“It is the Bob the Builder philosophy,” Matt Qvortrup, professor of applied political science at Coventry University in the U.K., told the BBC. (A bit of background for those without young children: The question “Can we fix it?” is greeted, in Bob’s theme song, with a hearty and perhaps overly optimistic “Yes we can.”)

“It is the ‘Yes we can’ mood that was used by Obama,” Qvortrup added. “It is an attempt to be the positive campaign because nobody likes to be seen as negative.” (For the record: It has never been definitively proven that Barack Obama lifted his 2008 campaign slogan from Bob the Builder.)

In fact, the government asked a nearly identical question in a 1975 referendum on British membership in the European Economic Community, a predecessor of the EU: “Do you think the U.K. should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?” And the “Yes” campaign did just what Qvortrup outlined, referring dismissively to its opponents as “‘no’ men.” If “the British people vote ‘No’ to the European Community, they will read how there was a defeat for co-operation between nations. … They will read how extremism won over commonsense,” one “Yes” politician declared. (That politician was none other than Margaret Thatcher, whose fiercely anti-EU days were still ahead of her.) The “Yes” camp prevailed.

Jon Henley at The Guardian, meanwhile, notes that the proposed wording may reveal where Cameron’s government stands on the question of British membership in the EU. Cameron has called for vague reforms of the U.K.-EU relationship—involving issues ranging from immigration quotas to protections for countries that, like the U.K. aren’t part of the EU’s monetary union—but he hasn’t gone so far as to ally himself with the “euroskeptic” wing of his Conservative Party or with anti-EU parties like the U.K. Independence Party.

In 2013, Henley observes, Britain’s Electoral Commission, seeking a clear, concise, and impartial EU referendum question, had suggested two options. The first was the wording that the government released this week, which had the benefit of being a simple yes/no question but ran the risk of favoring the pro-EU camp. A second prompt, the commission concluded, was more neutral: “Should the U.K. remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” “[T]he government favours the first option—an indication, perhaps, of its preferred outcome,” Henley wrote on Wednesday. Cameron has signaled that his preference is to remain in a reformed EU, and he embarked this week on a campaign to achieve those changes. But the language of the referendum question might imply that absent those reforms, the prime minister would rather stay in the union than ditch it.

After the Good Friday referendum in ‘98

Still, the extent to which that wording matters is debatable. After all, a referendum on Scottish independence last year asked a similar yes/no question—“Should Scotland be an independent country”—and the “Yes” campaign, however positive it may have seemed, lost.

In his interview with the BBC, Qvortrup cited the convoluted prompt given to voters in Northern Ireland in a 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement—“Do you support the Agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?”—to make the point that by the time a referendum is held, voters are familiar enough with the contested issue to almost skip over the question itself. Northern Irish voters probably went into booths with a far simpler question in mind: Would they be voting “yes” or “no”?

What might ultimately matter more than the wording of the referendum question is the timing of the vote (the later it comes into Cameron’s new term, Qvortrup said, the likelier it is to turn into a referendum on the prime minister’s leadership rather than EU membership) and the state of the British and European economies. According to the polling firm YouGov, roughly 45 percent of Brits would vote today to remain in the EU, up steeply from a low of 28 percent in May 2012, during the depths of the eurozone’s economic crisis. “Support for the Union has risen more or less in tandem with rising economic confidence,” YouGov reported.

In the meantime, David Cameron is on a mission to fix the European Union—and to persuade others that yes, he can.