Leave shouldn’t have won the UK’s referendum on the European Union. They were a very uneasy coalition. There were huge ructions at the top of their campaign. With just weeks to go before the vote, their whole effort basically amounted to Boris Johnson bussing around the country shouting about bananas. Almost every single expert in the world thought that their claims were nonsense. The official UK Statistics Authority trashed their main slogan and pledge – to spend more of ‘Britain’s money’ on the NHS. Solid, trusted, dignified figures such as the Governor of the Bank of England himself came out to say that they were charlatans. And yet – here we are. They won. If you’ll forgive us a detour into geekery, a load of Ewoks with sticks just derailed the Galactic Empire. Their tactics shouldn’t have even functioned, let alone delivered victory. Um. They have just unseated a Prime Minister, unscrambled an admittedly-fragile Labour Party, thrown the European Union’s institutions into chaos, and reshaped British politics for decades to come. How did they do it? Here’s five quick answers.
Immigration. There’s no other issue on many doorsteps. Everyone knows it. Everyone’s heard it. If you asked us three main issues that face us now, they would be immigration, immigration and immigration. It tops polling lists of voters’ concerns. It comes up everywhere. It’s poisoning the well of British politics, leading to a rise in hate crime, turning up the dials on the pressure cooker of some Britons’ sense of who they are, and what their country should be like. It’s an easy peg to hang tough times and tough lives on. It’s a good shorthand for globalisation’s damage and discontents in many of our most deprived communities. And it stands in for older Britons’ worries about a rapidly-changing, multi-layered and almost inexplicable world that they often don’t recognise and don’t like. But let’s be frank about it: immigration is high. It can lead to difficult hotspots of demand for housing and school places, brilliantly (if darkly) played upon by the Leave campaign. There’s bound to be tension. Overt racism is relatively rare in British life these days, though it’s there, it’s nasty, and it’s growing. So an influx of newcomers became both a lightning rod for other worries, about our rapidly accelerating sense of vertiginous economic insecurity, and a really viscerally-felt set of concerns about economic pressures that can be seen and easily conceptualised. No-one urging a Remain vote could say, in truth, that much could be done about the level of European migration if we stayed in the EU (though that's less than half the total). So we left.
Latent Euroscepticism – or the lack of it. It’d be easy to say that the British hate Europe. You could replay some footage of football fans chanting that they wanted Out; or put up some tabloid front pages about immigration and ‘Europe’. But actually, it isn’t quite like that. Most British people are quite open to, and admire, 'Europe' (opens as PDF). They like the food. The wine. They like free movement. They like the ability to live in Spain. They quite like our neighbours. They’d rather prefer to be part of the Single Market. It’s not anti-European feeling that’s important here. It’s the utter, utter lack of knowledge about the European Union and its institutions. Few Britons know anything about the Commission, the Council and the Parliament – and now it’s all too late. Apart from a few rather pathetic feints at instilling ‘Europeanism’ among the British at the start of our membership, successive governments have preferred to ignore or to fight about European governance. That’s left a complete blank space where knowledge of the EU might and should have been. That was easily filled by a load of Boris' stories about straight bananas and tabloid scare stories about toasters and kettles. None of it was true. But the lack of attachment to ‘Europe’ – something that’s perhaps rather more central to other Europeans’ identity – allowed a load of nonsense to flood in where true engagement and real debate might have been. By the time our now soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister David Cameron launched his bid to keep us in, it was all far too late to rectify any of this.
Anti-intellectualism. This was a Leave vote from those who enjoyed fewer years of education than the Remainers. The moment that leading Brexiteer Michael Gove said that ‘people have had enough of experts’, you knew he was on to something. Not just because this tapped effectively into long traditions of anti-scholarly and anti-intellectual British thought – that’s evident across the developed world, and perhaps a bit less in Britain than elsewhere – but because it took advantage of a whole slew of resentments. Yes, those experts who didn’t see the banking crisis coming? Those elitists who think they know what’s best for you? Those technocrats who pull the levers of the arrogant, distant, demanding state? What do they know? Well, they are pretty clear that growth will be slower, and that we will all be poorer, now that we’ve voted for Brexit – but why should you listen to them? They’re just as arrogant as those scientists who think that Genetically Modified foods might feed the world, with their unpopular Frankenstein technologies; and as high-falutin’ as all those politicians who think that everyone should accept gay marriage and multiculturalism. Or so the hemmed-in, angry and unhappy drumbeat of Leave resentments would have it – to great effect among the general public.
A sharper campaign. On one level, it’s all so simple. As soon as Leave pivoted towards talking about immigration, they sliced through every conversation and argument. They won. But there’s much more to this. Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, veterans of the ‘No to AV’ campaign in Britain’s last referendum campaign, grabbed two or three issues like a rag doll and shook them until they broke. Don’t keep sending our money out in EU membership fees, they said: spend it on the National Health Service instead. That was a clever way of appealing to older working-class voters who need the NHS, and worry about immigration’s impact on the Service. Don’t let Turkey into ‘Europe’, they said – cynically and opportunistically playing on voters’ fears of Muslim immigration given that Turks would be free to come to the UK if they did join the EU. And control our laws, they shouted – even though the UK might well end up with less control over the legislation that affects all our lives if we want to stay in the Single Market, perhaps via membership of the European Economic Area. Firing back, Remain could only make very complicated points, about the UK’s votes in the European Council and Parliament, about nebulous and hard-to-account-for gains to the macroeconomy overall that many voters thought would only go to ‘big business’ and the like. ‘Look after ourselves’: ‘pull up the drawbridge’. Powerful, simple words – from the better campaign, well backed-up and targeted on social media. It worked. The lesson? Bold, technicolour, almost outrageous claims – they’re great if you want to win.
Lying big. Leave didn’t play fair. There’s no reason why they should, of course, but they smashed the ball out of the park with their blatant untruths. Turkey is about to join the EU, they said. No, not true. We can take back £350m a week and spend it on the NHS, they said. No, that wasn’t true either. If we had stayed, they threatened that we might have to join an EU army. That was nonsense as well. But they said it so loudly, so confidently, and with such conviction, that it just seemed so straightforward and believable. And if you challenged these falsehoods, you just publicised the Leave camp’s many misrepresentations rather than calling them out. It was a lose-lose situation for Remain. Stay silent, and the lies shot by them, slipping straight into voters’ minds all the while Remain said nothing; or fight back, and risk voters just saying ‘well, if it’s not £350m, it still seems quite a lot’. If you keep a straight face, and you can make it to the short campaign governed by statute, you can take advantage of broadcasting rules that force producers to give you equal time with the reality-based community: the BBC, bending over backwards in the service of supposed ‘balance’, was particularly easily manipulated in this respect. Basically, Leave had clearer attack lines. They had to bodge them up from less than nothing – to fabricate them from totally untrue factual remainders and nonsense scraps – but whoever said life was fair? Not us.
So there you have it – a good guide of how to win power and influence people in the late modern, and semi-decadent, West. Frighten people about foreigners. Take advantage of gaps in people’s knowledge. Lay into experts. Rage at people like a latter-day Foghorn Leghorn on a particularly ultra-patriotic acid trip. Trample all over people who know what they are actually talking about. Rely on television journalists’ impartiality to spray lies all over the place. Then, dear reader, you can take Britain towards danger and away from safety – if you want. It is a doleful prospect. But then again, as Britain’s political ice age has tightened, what aspect of its collective life does not present such an unappealing face to the world?