"It zoomed in on some of the most sensitive zones of the British national psyche"by Jay Elwes / June 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
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.
Whether or not you hold or approve of such views is irrelevant. The point is that to any British person they are immediately recognisable. We saved the continent from annihilation. Twice. And now look at the mess they’ve made. They don’t know what they’re doing. Leave them to their own problems. The Brexit camp made a laser-like appeal to this sense of the continentals as suspect, untrustworthy and to be avoided. As Boris Johnson put it in a Telegraph interview on the subject of a unified Europe: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically… The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.
This idea of saying goodbye to the big European fiasco also spoke directly to British assumptions about our natural place in the European hierarchy (right at the top). Other European countries have to grub about and get into line. But you don’t win two world wars to become Luxembourg for god’s sake, or as Nigel Farage put it in a Telegraph article, “a grovelling junior member of a German-dominated club.” Britain is a leader. We should lead. This sense of British exceptionalism ran through every fibre of the ultimately successful “Leave” campaign.
What’s more, an exceptional country doesn’t follow someone else’s rules. “What the government wants,” said Johnson in a speech in May, “is for us to remain locked into the Single Market law-making regime, and to be exposed to 2,500 new EU regulations a year. What we want is for Britain to be like many other countries in having free-trade access to the territory covered by the Single Market—but not to be subject to the vast, growing and politically-driven empire of EU law.”
This line of argument struck a chord with the ingrained British hatred of excessive and unfair rule-making. Think of those great British bogey-men: the jobsworth; the nosey parker; the bureaucrat; the health and safety inspector; the referee. Oh how we detest them. In speaking to this hatred of the meddlers, the Brexit campaign touched a British sore-point.
Which is ironic when you consider that, throughout history, Britain has often expressed its character through laws and rules, driven on by an unshakeable belief in the importance of fair play. In this sense, the pro-Brexit argument that the country was being strangled by Euro-meddlers was tempered by the evident fact that at least some rules are necessary. After all, we are the country of Magna Carta. Consider also the rules written down by a group of 19th-century English public schoolboys under the title “Association Football.” Have any other rules achieved success comparable with those two sets? Cricket is an even more subtle example of the British ability to define the limits of acceptable behaviour, a game that does not have rules but laws, a good many of which are, like our constitution, unwritten. This is Britain’s little secret—we like rules rather more than we let on and have always been quietly good at making them.
On balance, the British take a nuanced view of rule-making, which made it a tricky area for the “Leave” campaign, which did its best to build a sense that Britain was being controlled from overseas: that we were a nation that had surrendered our sovereignty.
But the argument appeared to collapse in on the “Leave” side when people started asking what European rules they actually wanted to remove. Early in the campaign Andrew Marr put this question to Boris Johnson, who replied that the EU had passed prohibitive supervisory standards concerning the width of the Crossrail Tunnels beneath London. Britain was being forced to build its tunnels slightly wider than before, said Johnson in disgust, to accommodate foreign trains. This was the sort of senseless interference he would sweep from history.
Then came Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons and Conservative MP, who said that he wanted to rid Britain of the scourge of health and safety legislation. According to the Telegraph, at a “Leave” campaign speech in May, Grayling told an audience that he had seen a “photograph of the bookshelves of a GP surgery in the northeast. And their health and safety manuals are literally that wide!” and he opened his arms at full stretch. Michael Gove, the Lord Chancellor, got himself into a tangle when he claimed that EU rules and regulations had destroyed his father’s Aberdeen fishing business, a claim that was subsequently challenged—by his own father.
These objections were thin to the point of invisibility, and overlooked the fact that most people hardly ever come into contact with EU regulation. Banks complain about European rules, as do big business-owners, but most of them supported the “Remain” side. Rather than revealing an arid expanse of deadening regulation, the Brexit camp accidentally revealed a quite different truth: that the people who come up against European regulations more than anyone else are the politicians, and really their claim that the EU was making all our lives harder and more tedious was cover for the fact that it was making their lives harder and more tedious.
Weaker arguments were to come over the economy. The Leave side found itself confronting a torrential downpour of expert opinion saying Brexit would be terrible for Britain’s economy—a view borne out by the evidence so far. The weight of expert views was so great that it effectively shut down the argument. But it did lead to one of the more interesting campaign tactics adopted by the “Leave” side, which was to attack the experts, not for the arguments they put, but for being somehow inherently suspect.
When the Treasury released a report on the economic dangers of leaving the EU, Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and member of the Leave campaign, called the report “unfair and biased.” The Institute for Fiscal Studies ventured an opinion on the economics of Brexit, and was branded “a paid-up propaganda arm of the European Commission,” by the Vote Leave campaign. And as for Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, when he said that Brexit posed an economic risk to the UK, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory Brexiter, suggested that such “speculative” statements were “beneath the dignity of the Bank of England.”
Sticking two fingers up to the men and women in the ivory towers has its appeal. And there is no sense that the British public, even those who voted “Remain,” are especially taken with the EU, a bloated and expensive institution that can at times give the impression of acting in its own interests rather than those of its member states. But in the end this sort of disdain won’t do us much good, especially if the experts happened to be right and on the question of the economic consequences of Brexit, it now appears that they were.
The pinnacle of this debate over elites was the intervention of President Barack Obama, who warned that trade relations with the United States would be damaged by Brexit. The Presidential intervention proved double-edged. While the “Remain” side presented Obama’s words as the ultimate judgement of the global leader of the sensible, the Leave camp complained about interference by foreign bodies. (Farage called Obama, “the most anti-British American president there has ever been.”)
The theme of external interference was another central prop of the Leave argument, and was encapsulated in that pro-Brexit phrase that ran like a leitmotif through the entire campaign: “Take back control.” From April to late June, Johnson couldn’t open his mouth without those three words sliding out. “They say we can’t do it, we say we can,” Johnson told the Wembley Arena 48 hours before polling day, in a presumably unintentional echo of Obama’s 2008 election slogan. “They say we have no choice but to bow down to Brussels. We say they are woefully underestimating this country. If we vote ‘Leave,’ we can take back control of our borders, of huge sums of money, of our trade policy and of our whole law-making system.”
“If we vote ‘Leave’ and take back control,” said Johnson, hitting his rhetorical peak, “this Thursday can be our country’s Independence Day!”
The message was clear—that only by throwing off the European yoke could we find our true national self, and return to a lost state of undiluted Britishness, where our national vim would at last find its full expression.
At this point, the argument had strayed onto dangerous ground. The vision of an ideal Britain, the idea that if only we take the plunge then all of our problems—“our borders… huge sums of money… trade policy… our whole law-making system”—would be solved, was the worst kind of irrationalism. No catch-all cure for a nation’s political ills exists, and to suggest otherwise is delusional. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper wrote:
“Thus we are told to make sacrifices, and, at the same time assured that we shall make an excellent bargain by doing so. We shall make sacrifices, it is said, but we shall thereby attain honour and fame. We shall become Leading Actors, heroes on the stage of history; for a small risk we shall gain great rewards. This is the dubious morality of a period in which only a tiny minority counted and in which nobody cared for the common people. It is the morality of those who, being political or intellectual aristocrats, have a chance of getting into the textbooks of history.”
Watching Johnson on the Wembley stage and hearing his delusional claims brought this passage vividly to mind. Appealing to people’s irrational instincts can be extremely dangerous. It can act as the entry point to a much darker seam of politics, as the Donald Trump campaign in the US has shown. Popper again:
“It is my firm conviction that this irrational emphasis upon emotion and passion leads ultimately to what I can only describe as crime… What is left to the irrationalist except the appeal to other and less constructive emotions and passions, to fear, hatred, envy and ultimately, to violence?”
The poster unveiled by Farage showing a long line of refugees walking through a field under the headline “Breaking Point,” was meant to be the Leave camp’s moment of greatest impact. It was, but not quite in the way it intended. The poster was so incendiary that it was reported to the police. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, said the poster was evidence that the Leave campaign had become “Project Hate.” JK Rowling (7.52m Twitter followers) called the poster “an almost exact duplicate of propaganda used by the Nazis.” Nicola Sturgeon called it “vile and racist.”
And then the whole campaign came to a terrible halt. The murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, only hours after the poster’s release, was a hideous, barbaric, senseless act that shocked the campaign into silence. A deeply unpleasant argument was to follow over whether excessive political rhetoric had motivated the killer. There is no answer to that question. What we do know is that this terrible act will be forever associated with the referendum.
The EU campaign of 2016 was really a fight over what it means to be British. It’s not an especially British thing to do, to ask, as Roger Scruton has, “Who are we?” We are not a very Freudian nation at heart, and there is no UK equivalent of the book by the US thinker Samuel Huntington, which took that question for its title.
The character of the referendum and the result were nonetheless instructive. The choice was between the status quo and a leap in the dark. Remarkably, we chose the latter, encouraged to do so by Johnson and others, who posed as the heirs to Walter Raleigh, promising a new era of buccaneering activity on the high seas of global trade. Britain would re-take its rightful role at the top table of global affairs—an attractive vision.
But it was nothing more than a vision. The Leave camp had no plan for how this might be achieved. Instead it offered economic and political uncertainty, and a draining re-negotiation of Britain’s international trade, financial and business agreements. Parliament will have to re-write British law to take out mentions of the EU. And then we would have to negotiate terms with the EU itself, which will want to show other member states that the EU (20 per cent of global GDP) could not be bossed about by a nation like Britain (3 per cent of global GDP).
The Brexit argument drove the nation into a fury, filled television studios and ultimately—and absurdly—the Wembley Arena. In straying towards ideological ground, the Brexiteers strayed onto deeply hazardous and unpleasant territory. They encouraged us to follow—and 52 per cent of us did.