I remember being canvased for the 1989 European election. I was a nineteen year old mother of a two year old, living in a shared house. It was the first election I’d been old enough to vote. It was also the first time I’d seen the Green Party as an electoral force. Something interesting was going on. I can’t say that Europe itself really mattered to me very much, but it opened up ways to think things through, that we couldn’t really find space for elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, a team of volunteer writers were invited to contribute to the Mass Observation Project to gauge what everyday people thought of Europe, nearly ten years on into the Common Market. Mass Observation is a project that has become increasingly important on my journey from teenage mum to fully fledged academic. Then, as now, the mass observation project seized the opportunity to explore what Europe might mean to people. In 1982 Professor David Pocock invited his team of volunteer writers for the mass observation project to answer a series of questions reflecting on nearly ten years in the Common Market. He recognised that Mass Observation’s team of ‘citizen journalists’ were well placed to ‘demonstrate the distinctive value of Mass-Observation material and so [he hoped] demonstrate the distinctive value’ of the project’s work’.
Dorothy Sheridan explained the background to the Special Directive in her commissioned essay for Observing the 80s
“Headed ‘Common Market Special’, this directive contained two parts: an open ended first part inviting general comments on British membership after ten years including impact on employment, holidays, shops, other members of the EEC and recording jokes and graffiti. The second part is a 10 point questionnaire which ‘tests’ general knowledge about the Common Market.
One of the Trustees of the MOA in the 1980s was a contact of the late Tom Harrisson’s, James Fulton, who had connections with the Foreign Office. Fulton was also a friend of a research and Parliamentary lobbyist, Heather Randall, who worked at the London Office of the European Economic Community. Ms Randall commissioned the EEC Special and wrote up her analysis in Randall, H: Looking at Europe: pointers to some British attitudes in Europe 83 (4) pp 22-23, 1983.”
Then as now, the arguments over Europe, were as much a battle over information, pollsters, methods and public opinion as they were over whether Britain should be in or out. One female mass observer carried out her own survey amongst her friends and family “none are for the EEC, my husband is strongly against. Few knew the answers to your questions which proves they are against something they know nothing about.” Facts, we hear, are the key. The public just want the facts without the spin. Politicians on either side swap and shift the order of their facts in a game of statistical pingpong. It is as if they, as we, hope that there really is a magical fact. A shibboleth that can open the door to the unknown future and show us exactly how a global set of social, cultural and economic intersections will respond if we do or don’t make a decision.
As a historian I’m not really that interested in facts, or indeed in uncovering what happened in the past. Historical facts, like Brexit statistics, can engage us in a game of historical cause and effect. Shift the order of the facts and we shift the order of significance perhaps, but it never really gets us anywhere. I’m much more interested in what the drive to the factual means. What is it about our experiences, our analysis and arguments, then and now, that drive us to the magic truth moment, the ultimate fact that will legitimise all we stand for? How can we feel so strongly about something ‘we know nothing about’?
Female Observer F208
It’s really quite difficult to comment on whether our membership of the CM is a good or bad thing. I think there’s too many people ready to say it’s a bad thing out of hand, and few who would say it’s good. Personally, I must admit to knowing very little about our involvement in the Common Market mainly because we hear so little about it in the media, the only times we do hear about it are usually when there’s been a glut of butter or tomatoes and there’s public outcry when the commodities are left to rot or are sold off to Russia at a knock-down price.
The Mass observers understood that there is no dividing line between a fact and an opinion, or the evidence and the argument. They wove the public and personal elements of their lives together. One worried about the impact of decimalisation on her children’s education, alongside the value of post-war internationalism. Then, as now, observers weighed up the day to day implications of Europe, and what it told them they valued about their everyday lives and their imagined communities. They used discussion of Europe as an opportunity to think about what it means to be a citizen, of a nation, and internationally.
Female Observer B073 – ‘How can the Common Market thrive if there is such a reluctance to speak in foreign languages?’ ‘It is a good thing that European visitors can take advantage of our NHS […] but this is open to exploitation.’
The fact givers, the press and the politicians, get pretty short shrift. The press is biased, the politicians are untrustworthy. Perhaps it is not the lack of factual knowledge that is the issue here. But an experienced, analysed and evaluated set of arguments that mean something to people.
(A version of this post was originally presented on the Human Zoo for Radio 4)