Referendums are valuable provided, as noted in part 2, three pillars are in place: a binary choice between two absolutely known outcomes; a robust Referendum Commission, or a similar policing body, to prevent misinformation/malpractice; and sufficient time to completely and accurately inform the electorate on the outcomes and trade-offs.
None of these were present. In any event, the complexity of leaving the EU was so great that a referendum was totally unsuitable. The smartest ten or even hundred people in the room would have been unable to fully understand the myriad outworkings of Leave.
Additionally, as noted in part 1, a massive protest vote biasing the referendum very much towards Leave was predictable, even before this was amplified by keeping Leave undefined. A referendum Jim, but not as we know it, hence the quotation marks. It was a mendacious scam. I feared Britain was sleepwalking to disaster.
To compound matters, the referendum was further biased towards Leave as around two million Commonwealth citizens, promised favourable migration rules to replace FoM and otherwise unaffected, could vote, whereas a similar number of EU citizens directly affected by the outcome could not. Many UK citizens living on the Continent were also denied a vote.
On the other hand, Brexit was a moronic idea. Britons couldn’t be so idiotic to vote for it, surely?
There was no Referendum Commission, but in the BBC, Britain had a world-leading broadcaster. Surely, according to its charter, it would inform the public impartially, accurately and fully? This was especially important as knowledge of the EU was very low. Much of what people thought they knew was untrue, having been fed Euromyths and anti-EU propaganda by the right-wing media for the previous 25 years.
One can debate if campaigns change many minds, but it was obvious that Remain needed to run a far better campaign than Leave to stand a chance.
Clearly, immigration would be a major issue. The right-wing tabloid press had for decades run near-daily headlines, blaming immigration and by extension, membership of the EU for many, if not all, of Britain’s ills.
Blair made two disastrous decisions in ’03/’04, the first evident at the time, the second less so. These were the Iraq invasion and the failure to apply the seven-year emergency brake on freedom of movement of citizens of new member states following an enlargement of the EU which the UK had championed (A8 acquisition).
The Iraq invasion led to the destabilisation of the Middle East. Europe being in the middle of a major refugee crisis proved unfortunate timing for the pro-Remain campaign and, in so far as different parts of the UK voted differently, it was destabilising for the UK. More accurately, the use to which the refugee crisis was put by the Leave campaign was. Farage’s notorious Breaking Point poster and claims of 70M Turks being about to join the EU played to fears of the UK being overrun with Muslims.
A8 acquisition was when eight much poorer Eastern European countries, most importantly Poland, joined the EU. Under EU rules, Freedom of Movement could have been suspended for seven years. Only the UK, Ireland and Sweden chose not to do so. Rather than around fifty thousand Poles coming to the UK as predicted, there were around one million in 2016. These were of immense benefit both economically and culturally. However, blaming foreigners for the problems caused by Tory austerity is the oldest trick in the right-wing populist handbook and it was used to the full.
Another major problem was that, especially for many of the Tories, the UK’s membership of the EU, was begrudging and transactional. On balance, good for the economy, but it contaminated rather than enhanced British Culture and attenuated rather than amplified sovereignty. Making a positive case for the EU would be well nigh impossible for those Tories convinced of their own superiority and the UK’s exceptionalism.
I had expected the right-wing press to continue peddling anti-EU propaganda but was dismayed and disgusted by the BBC, which completely failed in its duty to inform the electorate. It confused balance with truth, as it had done earlier when know-nothing climate deniers would be given equal airtime to eminent climate scientists.
The country was pretty evenly split, but as argued in part 1 there would likely be a massive anti-government protest vote. Therefore, provided Leave could mobilise them, the referendum was probably lost even before the starting gun was fired.
Before the campaign started, Cameron went to Brussels, undecided if he would support Leave or Remain, depending on sufficient Extrawurst-Großbritannien. These related to the emergency brake, child benefits, non-eurozone protection and safeguards against ever closer union. Cameron declared victory, said he supported Remain, and kick-started the campaign. According to Anthony Barnett in The Lure of Greatness, Cameron was woefully ill-prepared and returned with thin gruel. Many, including much of the right-wing press, were deeply unimpressed by this so-called victory and supported Leave.
The tone of the campaign was dreadful, arguably even obscene. It was coarse, ugly, divisive and bitter.
The Leave campaign knew that rational arguments alone would not work and it had no compunction about pushing English nativist buttons or lying or both. The buttons beloved of the right-wing press: Xenophobia, Patriotism, and Exceptionalism were mashed hard and often.
It was so ugly many wanted it just to stop. In part 2 I said four months was too short a period. Now, it seemed far too long as emotions ran high.
I largely ignored the campaign, reading such papers as If the UK Votes to Leave the Seven Alternatives to EU Membership by J C Piris (one of the EU’s top legal brains). I sought out blogs where there was decent, rational debate. I mainly used Prof Richard Murphy’s Tax Research UK (TRUK), now rebranded as ‘Funding the Future’. This is a blog looking at economics from a Modern Monetary Theory perspective. Many of Richard’s ideas were adopted by Labour and branded Corbynomics.
The Remain campaign
In brief, it was a lacklustre ‘project fear‘ campaign from Cameron and in my view a half-hearted effort from a Labour Party led by the ‘Lexiter’ Corbyn. Focusing on economic issues may have cut it for the Scottish Independence referendum but was unlikely to work when it came to Brexit. Cameron was also used to unqualified support from the right-wing press. It came as a shock when they abandoned him.
The Remain campaign predicted dire economic consequences if Brexit went ahead. As Brexit was undefined, many were not credible, particularly the Emergency Budget. While Brexit was undoubtedly a negative economically, most of the effects would not be apparent for years: like a slow puncture or catching arthritis, it would put Britain in the slow lane relative to its EU neighbours. The only immediate likely consequence of Leave would be a sharp drop in the pound.
Remain offered little inspiration or vision. One of the rare highlights was Gordon Brown’s Coventry Cathedral speech underlining that the EU was, at heart, a peace project (effective not just on the continent but within the UK–the Belfast Agreement was primarily enabled by EU membership and the removal of borders). Another was Anna Soubry’s solo run extolling the virtues of Freedom of Movement, which David Cameron rapidly squashed.
The Leave campaigns
There were two leave campaigns, the official Vote Leave campaign primarily driven by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, with Boris Johnson being the most prominent spokesperson and Leave.EU, primarily driven by Aaron Banks, Andy Wigmore and Richard Tice, with Nigel Farage being the most prominent spokesperson. The official campaign was designed to be ‘respectable’ and appeal to middle England, allowing Leave.EU to run a rabid anti-migrant campaign capitalising on a common lack of understanding of the difference between FoM and immigration, using Nazi tactics.
The Leave Campaign was not entirely negative, indeed, part of its appeal was the the promise of a golden future outside the EU. A Mirror of Erised approach, where everyone saw the time they were or could be happiest. Many of these promises were so fantastical that unicorn took on a totally different meaning. I was deeply sorry for fishermen, a glorious ex-EU future awaited. The fishiest unicorn of all.
The official campaign launched with the Brexit Bus “We send the EU £350 Million a week; let’s fund our NHS Instead” and a fantastical before and after video. My wife, a senior ITU consultant and one of the few to have held the two most senior national positions, President of the Intensive Care Society and Dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care, was outraged. EU citizens were younger and healthier. EU people in hospital will almost never be a patient but a doctor or nurse. The NHS would deteriorate rapidly if we left the EU as many would likely go home, and fewer join.
Tory Remainers contested the £350mn per week figure and by doing so amplified the message–an own goal! (It was just optics anyway, as the economic return for being an EU member was about ten times as much).
Another lowlight of the campaign was Penny Mordant insisting Turkey was joining the EU and the UK had no power to stop it. This, of course, was a cynical and outrageous lie. But, famously, “A Lie Can Get Half-way Round the World Before the Truth Has Got Its Boots On“. Rather than quashing this immediately, the BBC amplified the lie for many hours before finally correcting the error after the damage was done; a grotesque failure.
Towards the end of the campaign, I kept seeing weird Leave EU posts on my FaceBook timeline. Later, I discovered it was part of an illegal AIQ microtargeting campaign. This may have been the tactic that pushed Leave over the line. It was targeted mostly towards “Left Behind” areas to amplify the protest vote.
Another oddity was a DUP wraparound Brexit cover on the Metro Newspaper. How could the DUP possibly afford this? It would have cost many times their annual advertising budget. Certainly dark money, but from where?
The lowest of the low, for me, was the Breaking Point poster from Farage, cynically implying being in the EU facilitated mass uncontrolled immigration from outside the EU. This was racist and fascist propaganda in its most blatant form.
Given the fire and fury from Leave and the ineptness of Remain, it was interesting that almost everyone I knew: from academic colleagues, friends, members of my sports club and neighbours (including all the farmers in my rural part of Northumberland), were voting Remain. Only my brother-in-law and various Lexiters I interacted with online were voting leave.
My brother-in-law was a Telegraph reader, a “Take Back Control” and “Believe in Boris” person, utterly impervious to argument. I dutifully read articles he suggested by Daniel Hannan, but he seemed hurt when I said these had zero credibility and “cloud cuckoo land stuff“, often demonstrably false from the first sentence, never mind the first paragraph. He ignored all the sources I suggested. Finally, I said I would make it easy. Appeal to my Irish Republican side: “what is bad for England is good for Ireland.” Add that Brexit will create an Irish Sea Border and will accelerate a United Ireland by a generation, and I’m sold! “What will convince you to vote Remain?” he replied, “Nothing“.
Far more frustrating were Lexiters. I had little online political presence in 2016, but used to debate on the TRUK blog. They were convinced that the EU was a Hayekian Neoliberal project and that by escaping it a socialist Nirvana could be formed. I was confident given the tribalism driving Leave sentiment that a far-right coup was a more likely, even inevitable, outcome, but I got nowhere.
Depressingly, I became more and more convinced Leave would win. I had hoped Jo Cox’s murder on 16 June would cause a rethink, but felt it unlikely. The TRUK blog consensus was that Cameron and Osbourne would resign after a Leave result was clear, leaving others to clean up the mess and Theresa May would be the next PM. May was not the worst choice, but terrible news for Freedom of Movement.
Final thoughts and election night
The referendum campaign was horrendous and pointed to a dystopian “post-truth” future where attractive lies would trump more mundane truths, and wedge issues would divide.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.W B Yeats: The Second Coming
As argued in part 1, much hinged on the protest vote; people who, because of the FPTP system, felt utterly disenfranchised and seldom, if ever, voted. If these turned out in strength, it would be enough to tip the vote to leave.
Watching Election night On the BBC coverage, I heard Ian Duncan Smith said that he’d been in politics for 24 years and couldn’t remember seeing an equivalent council-estate turnout before. Hope was pretty much lost then. I stayed up for the Newcastle result, marginal Remain, and Sunderland’s dramatic Leave result. Leave was in the bag. I went to bed. When I awoke, there was a beautiful rainbow outside my window mocking me and a clear 52:48 Leave result.
Was Leave inevitable from the May 2015 GE with the unexpected Tory majority, as Steve Richards argues in Turning Points? Was it what Nasseem Taleb would call a Black Swan Event, a series of malign coincidences to which the UK was particularly susceptible as its apparent stability and robustness of its “world-leading” democracy was an illusion?
Either way, Leave came as a shock to many (even on the Leave side). There was a total lack of preparation in Whitehall. Cameron thought Leave was unthinkable and the civil service was forbidden to draw up contingency plans.
Was it a “Frauderendum” as I would argue, or the “the will of the people“? Millions who voted Leave were normally politically disengaged. They seldom or never voted and saw Leave as GLORIOUS: a great victory and liberation. All knew precisely what Leave meant; they had “taken back control“! and were “Free at Last“!
Would industrial-scale lying and cheating foreign interference, particularly from Russia, be an issue? Would the Referendum stand scrutiny? If so, could the country be healed and would parliament be up to the task? Would the far-right seize a Leave victory to take control of the agenda?
More importantly, perhaps, was how the EU and the wider world community would react. Would there be a domino effect, with the EU collapsing and Ireland, still regarded by some as dependent on the UK, falling first? Surely in the revolutionary fervour of Independence Day, “a new dawn had broken” (as Farage claimed) and the destiny of greatness would now be fulfilled? Again. Or perhaps not?
The series continues with “A House Divided against Itself Cannot Stand.”
This article was first published at Progressive Pulse.