There are many threads to the Brexit stratagem but two which are intimately entwined are the notions of an ‘elite’ and of ‘experts’. Both groups were criticised and laughed at by the Brexit camp; some Remain campaigners were dismissed for being elitist and therefore opposed to the populist insurgency and ignorant of the reasons for it; similarly, warnings about the potential effects of a Brexit were labelled as the biased opinions of experts and billed as ‘Project Fear’.
This left the field open for the disgraceful ‘Vote Leave’ and UKIP campaigns to use unfounded statements, post-truths, false-news, lies and propaganda as slogans. Such as the now infamous and disowned ‘£350 million’, the wild assertion that ‘Turkey will join the EU soon’ and that a European Defence Force (EDF) would absorb and obliterate our national Armed Forces. The barrage of invective directed against the EU was reinforced by other slogans such as ‘We want our borders back’ and ‘Take back control’, cleverly pitched to persuade the populist voter they were doing something positive, another gross misrepresentation of the effects a Brexit majority would have. The ‘elite’ and ‘expert’ myths were swallowed by both camps; those that believed they would be revolting against the elite and the experts; and those politicians who believed they were trying to protect the interests of the disadvantaged and being frustrated in that effort.
Tit for tat
This slickly executed twisting of public perception worked very effectively. It allowed Leave campaigners to dismiss sincerely issued warnings of the effect on the money markets with the ‘Project Fear’ tag. I heard Michael Heseltine levelling the same ‘Project Fear’ accusation at the Leave camp over claims made about the entry of Turkey into the EU but it was too late; it had become a game of tit-for-tat and the Leave camp had made the first and most important score. It allowed Leave campaigners to pour scorn on the concerns expressed by Mark Carney, Christine Lagarde, the Office for Budget Responsibility and many other experts and esteemed institutions. By this stage, the Leave campaign was effectively repeating their simple hypnotic propaganda mantras, speaking to the ‘populist’ voter who were no longer listening to rational argument. When David Beckham and Jeremy Clarkson expressed their commitment to the Remain campaign, it was way too late to change minds that were by now indoctrinated and prejudiced.
Anti-Brexit Halloween costume courtesy of The Young European Movement UK
The anti-elitist, anti-expert argument had become the stock-in-trade Leave camp response to counter any rational argument by a Remain supporter. On the difficulties of renegotiating trade deals the Leaver camp’s retort was ‘We’ll sort that out and we can get a better deal … once we’ve voted to leave’. On the value of our trade with Europe ‘They’ll be begging us to do business, once we’ve voted to leave’. On the difficulties of controlling mass migration ‘We’ll take back control of our borders, once we’ve left the EU’. The notion foremost in many Leaver supporters’ minds was that the grass-roots vote was going to change the way the UK was run and put the political elite in their rightful place; they would be taking instructions from the popular voter and not ignoring them and their political and economic needs. Many of those who took this position were intelligent people who had attempted to assess the complex facts. Many took a simpler approach based on their main reservation selected from a range affecting them personally, usually in their pocket. Some had reservations about immigration although this was a factor blown out of proportion by the Leave campaign. There was no arguing against it, ‘Leave’ voters considered that immigration would undermine the UK’s economy and its racial purity; and the popular vote was going to change all that. So many other arguments, each one countered by the notion that it was made by a member of the elite or by an expert.
Constructive and destructive
How can we summarise this peculiar campaign strategy? Well Abraham Lincoln did not get it quite right. He famously said words to the effect that “You can fool some of the people all of the time and you can fool all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” For completeness, I would have to add “Abraham, if you can fool enough people once, you’ve got the job done”. The Brexit stratagem on this occasion used populism, elitism and expertise as its spanners in the democratic works. Whatever tools that come to hand can be used in a similar way to pervert the electorate from a responsible choice. The popular voter was strongly urged to get out and vote and this message was not extended so forcefully to Remain voters. We know the result. Not just the marginal majority for Brexit; that is almost incidental. No, it is the deep and lasting division that has infected this ‘green and pleasant land’. For this gift, we can thank the Eurosceptics who treated the EU as a cup half empty to be drained and then smashed rather than as the most constructive post-war political project the world has seen; one to be supported and developed, not vilified and destroyed.
(N.B. The Brexit stratagem was also applied in the US election BIG LEAGUE with both the ‘elitist’ and ‘expert’ cards played publicly. ‘Drain the swamp’ and ‘Lock her up’ were both despicable slogans employed to unashamedly whip the crowds into a frenzy. Not those people described by Hillary Clinton with the ill-advised and erroneous tag as the ‘basket of deplorables’. These were for the most part ordinary people and few of them were in the category ‘disadvantaged’.)