"It zoomed in on some of the most sensitive zones of the British national psyche"by Jay Elwes / June 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The European Union referendum was the most politically traumatic event in British public life since Iraq. And after the billboards, the battle busses, the slanging match of claim and counter-claim and the frenzy of political back-stabbing, we arrive at the question that hung over all those months of political self-abuse, and it is this—why was the referendum campaign so nasty?
The answer is that it zoomed in on some of the most sensitive zones of the British national psyche, and exploited them mercilessly for political ends. It forced us to confront a host of subjects from which the British instinctively run a mile, among them: our attitude to foreigners; our willingness to co-operate with others; our sense of international self-importance and position in the hierarchy of nations. It was the freedom with which politicians bandied about questions of such immense importance, and their willingness to appeal to our irrational instincts, that lent the campaign its deeply unpleasant, almost neurotic edge.
The Leave campaign made the most intensive use of our national weaknesses. It had to—a great deal of political energy is required to shatter the status quo. David Cameron and the Remain side had the advantage of inertia, which meant they could present a more moderate message. It was curious to watch as the Leave side writhed and complained about the spirit of the campaign and the rudeness and underhand tactics of the Remain side. But really this was nonsense. It was they who were the more aggressive and they who, in looking to shift public opinion against the EU, made the most direct appeal to the less admirable parts of our national character.
Where better to start than with the deep-seated British sense that continental Europeans don’t know what they’re doing? Perhaps it is because we are an island nation, one invaded by the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans, that we retain an atavistic mistrust of our European neighbours. It might help explain why we laugh at the French for losing wars (that we have to win on their behalf) and why we regard the Germans as hyper-efficient to the point of being sinister, why we think the Italians are corrupt, the Spanish and Greeks lazy, and so on and so on.