Leading article: A dazzling Sun headline, but the truth was in the small print

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The Independent Online
Regular Independent readers (who by definition, perhaps, rarely read The Sun) may be surprised to learn that that august organ not infrequently takes us to task for one thing and another. Most recently, the decision by our sister Sunday paper to promote the legalisation of soft drugs has attracted The Sun's indignant scorn. The flow of invective rarely runs the other way; after all, we know The Sun to be a decent, upstanding paper, concerned for the well-being of decent, upstanding folk. Why on earth should we want to knock it?

But - what the heck - just this once. Yesterday The Sun published a poll which it commissioned from MORI, a well-known and reputable outfit. The paper reported the results of this survey with great gusto: "BIG NO TO EURO IN SUN POLL - 81% REJECT BRUSSELS TAKEOVER", the paper proclaimed. This headline was almost half-justified by the polling figures, but only on a very selective interpretation - which makes you wonder how MORI allowed The Sun to get away with it. But give the paper its due: it had the decency to provide us with all the information, all the numbers, all the tables, which enabled the analytic reader to work out that the paper was talking a lot of hyped-up hooey about the results of the survey it commissioned. How many Sun readers bothered to read the tables, in order to discover that their paper was fibbing in a grand way, heaven alone knows. One or two perhaps. So we'd like to do the job for the rest of them. And an educative analysis it is, too.

It is true that 57 per cent of respondents opposed Britain participating in a single European currency, against 32 per cent supporting it. Roughly similar proportions opposed our participation in a European central bank. Surprise surprise: that much we already knew. Much more intriguing, though, is the real message from the poll, which The Sun made (for obvious reasons) no attempt whatever to extract. It is that, by a conspicuous majority, British voters recognise that our future lies in Europe, most do not want out, and - here is the fascinating figure - more people do not actually think our participation in a single currency would be economically bad for us than the other way around.

Take a look at this. Asked if they thought their children would feel more or less a part of Europe, most people (59 per cent) said more. Asked if they thought there would be a United States of Europe, more than half thought it would happen by the year 2050, of whom more than half thought it would happen by 2010. And, when asked if joining a single currency would make people worse or better off, 49 per cent thought it would make no difference, or would leave them better off (most of those thought it would make no difference).

So what would be the honest story out of all this? It would be that the British people (particularly older ones, probably) are unhappy, or at the least very nervous, about the risk of sacrificing their British identity to an unstoppable European political conglomerate. But they are also quite sensible, in that they do not mostly think they will be harmed by the direction they see Britain and Europe going in. They are unenthused, but they are not, by and large, scared. The fear, it seems, lies in the headlines and the right-wing rhetoric, not in the hearts of the voters.

This is a salutary lesson, and one that the Conservative party meeting up in Blackpool this week would do well to heed. Do not knee-jerk, dear Tories, in response to Sun stories, or Telegraph leaders, or the closed xenophobic minds of throwback politicians like Norman Tebbit (whose Powellite inanities over the past week should be regarded as an embarrassment, but not a serious threat to mainstream Toryism).

Political leadership in Britain over the next few years will be defined, in great measure, by the ability to interpret and articulate what the British people really feel about their relationship with Europe, and not by fantasising about what you might like them to feel. Voters are subtler and more complex than our current debate allows. They see this issue in three dimensions. They are anxious about some aspects of our future relationship with Europe, but mostly relaxed about others. The Sun may not understand this; more likely, doesn't care. It has invested some faith in Tony Blair, and is now trying to bully him into believing that the overwhelming majority of Britons want to drive a stake through the heart of Europe. But Mr Blair is wiser than that: he will study the figures, just as we have done, because he knows that voters will, in the end, despise politicians who ignore the complexity of their views. And if the Conservative party has not learnt that lesson by now, all the palaver in Blackpool will be a waste of their time, and yours.