Published on June 27, 2016

Reframing the debate

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

977775592_726a914da9_zThere are many on the Remain side of the vote who are now feeling, perhaps for the first time, the sense of alienation, economic uncertainty and anger that many on the Leave side have felt for 20-30 years. What has become even clearer after Thursday’s vote is that the debate has never been about Europe alone. It is also about the economy, equality, our place in the world and the changing nature of our communities.

But this is not how the debate has been panning out across the country. There is ugliness and downright division brewing. This article on anti-Polish cards being distributed in Cambridgeshire is just one sign of the racism that is being openly displayed by a very small minority on the Leave side.

The contempt being expressed by a similarly very small minority on the Remain side is sometimes harder to spot and more insidious, but it is real none-the-less. See, for example, Noel Gallagher arguing (before the results were out) that there should never have been a referendum because 99% of the UK population is “thick as pig shit”. Similar sentiments can be found on Twitter, ranging from the dismissive and ridiculing to seething disgust. See for example,


However, whether the result of the referendum holds, or the politics play out such that we end up remaining, one thing is abundantly clear; a significant minority of the country risks feeling even more alienated, ignored and vulnerable. This is not a recipe for a united country.

This was something we predicted the day before the election. At that point, at the end of the debate but before the vote, there was no way of knowing what kind of exit people voting leave wanted, and what kind of leave those wanting remain would tolerate.

Our position is no different in the aftermath of the vote.

What the country needs is real leadership now, that starts the process of healing the divisions. These were always there to some extent, but the referendum debate has brought them out into the open and deepened them. With some notable exceptions (such as Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan) it appears, right now, that this leadership is absent. David Cameron’s resignation on Friday morning has focused the Conservative Party inwards. And at the time of writing the Labour Party appears to be in tailspin.

We cannot spend the next four months of the Conservative (and possibly Labour) party leadership battle debating Europe alone. We have to debate the real issues I outline above, because only then can we successfully negotiate a new relationship with the EU that is built on some sense of a nationally shared settlement.

But this is not a debate that will reframe itself, even less so if our two main political parties are in the middle of leadership battles that focus on whether the main protagonists are pro-Leave or pro-Remain.

At the national political level there appear to be three main possibilities:

  1. David Cameron, who faces the real possibility of becoming a lame duck Prime Minister, could rise above the partisan debate and engage in a countrywide, inclusive conversation about the real issues that face us. This has some plausibility given that he is not going to be the person doing the renegotiation with our EU partners. If he were able to manage this, a better foundation for those negotiations could be his final legacy;
  2. The leaders of our devolved governments could help to reframe the debate about what a positive outcome looks like for the component parts of the United Kingdom. Given that we have devolved governments emerging across the country, including in some of the places that voted most strongly for leave, this is a potentially powerful option; or
  3. MPs from all parties who understand the challenge as I outline it, agree to stand together on a platform of national unity, debating the real issues that face the country, in the open and with the public. As with option one, this would potentially help the country to develop a sounder foundation for the eventual negotiations.

These options feel very much like I’m clutching at straws. Right now they seem unrealistic. No knight in shining armour is going to ride over the horizon and save us.

This means it is down to us, ordinary members of the public. We have to provide the leadership that is currently lacking.

I’ve spent the weekend worrying about what that means for me personally, and for Involve as an organisation. We have some valuable tools. Our core business is in reframing issues, providing tools and facilitators who can help people find a different route into – and potentially out of – challenging and divisive debates.

But we can normally see who is willing to work with us, listen to the debates we facilitate and take action based on what they have heard. Right now who this is just isn’t obvious – see above. But we can’t just sit back and wait for leadership to emerge, as I’ve already said, it’s down to all of us in the UK to lead.

In amongst the uncertainty, one of the things I am sure of is that there’s lots of expertise in our networks and while we may not be able to see our place in the situation alone, perhaps together with a crowd of facilitators we can.

Over the next few days we’re going to explore whether there is interest in coming together as facilitators, people who work in community development, stakeholder engagement and conflict resolution, to develop a sense of whether and how our tools might be useful in supporting citizens and leaders to develop a more shared sense of what the next steps might be.

If you are interested in finding out more do email me and we’ll get back to you as our plans firm up.

All of our experience demonstrates that this kind of inclusive, respectful debate, which can lead to a wider range of options opening-up, is possible. I believe that such a debate is an essential precondition developing a settlement with Europe that the majority can agree on.

Image credit: SantiMB.Photos, Flickr Creative Commons



17 Responses to “Reframing the debate”

  1. June 27, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Thanks for the post-count me in to help!

  2. June 28, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks – your piece very much echoes my sentiments on the present situation .
    Count me in – happy to contribute/ meet up to explore possibilities.

  3. Pete Bryant
    June 28, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I’m in !

  4. June 28, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    Andi Roberts kindly shared your post on the UK graphic facilitators group and I thank him for this and you for your post. My clearest observation or reflection so far of the process we have just been through and continue to go through is of very poor presentation of information from politicians and media in clear and accessible formats and on different platforms for different needs. The lack of objectivity and clarity of information without using isolated data to support a given argument seems at least in part to have led to strong opinions on sides being formed. This also applies to the listening of the arguments and views. I think visual practitioners could work alongside other facilitators collaboratively to take an active part in facilitating some parts of this and other democratic processes. So in short I will post this response also on our forum but I’m definitely interested.

  5. June 28, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    I’d just like to add my support and involvement alongside Andi and Debbie. I’ve been having many thoughts about how I/we can use my/our skills to help put the messages across in a straightforward way! We (visual practitioners) create simple pictures and visual summaries to put across more complex ideas – in an easy-to-understand way. I believe it could really help. I am also very very keen to help wherever I can. Please count me in too. Thank you.

  6. June 29, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Hi Simon,
    I would be delighted to assist with live or pre-prepared visuals. I am a graphic facilitator based near Glasgow.
    Best wishes,

  7. Simon Burall
    Simon Burall
    June 29, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Thank you all for your interest. We’ve added your names to the list of people we’ll be sending the invitation to. Please do feel free to forward to your networks when you receive it.


  8. Louise
    June 29, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    Simon, very interested to collaborate and support.

  9. Jacinta
    July 6, 2016 at 4:17 am

    If I was in the UK I’d love to come along. I think you’ll have a keen group of virtual helpers outside the UK. I wonder if we could observe, if not participate, via some wonderful, free technology avenue?

    • Simon Burall
      Simon Burall
      July 6, 2016 at 8:44 am


      Thanks for the comment. Virtual helpers, support and ideas are always welcome. I’m not sure that we are going to livestream the workshop though. this is for the practical reason that we’re planning to run it as lots of small groups in an open space type process. This doesn’t lend itself very well to webcasting. We might suggest that people use periscope and we’ll think about the right hashtag on twitter so that people can follow on if they want to.


      • July 6, 2016 at 10:53 am

        Great to hear that you’re thinking about how people who can’t be there, can follow and possibly even contribute! Periscope / hashtagging seem like good ideas.

  10. July 22, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Have a great day today, sorry I can’t join you and hope I can get involved later.

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