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Some false claims and a lesson from the EU referendum

My last post dates back to early 2016 when I wrote about the risks of David Cameron sleepwalking us towards Brexit.

The cataclysm happened. And it then took an agonising four more years of tortuous debate for the UK to actually leave the European Union.

Friendships were left strained, relationships broken, investment stalled, and our parliamentary democracy suddenly looked very fragile indeed. Precious little was achieved in policy terms in the meantime.

There are so many lessons to draw, and myths to debunk, from this period. But there are three particular claims from the referendum period I want to debunk here, and one lesson which I think has been all too clear.

All for One is back! After a four year absence, it’s time to start feeding this blog again. Quite unlike a hungry child, it has waited patiently for me. Now, it’s my turn to pay it the attention it deserves.

Myth 1: more Remain emotion would have won it

After the referendum, people tended to look back on the two opposing campaigns as the Leave side carrying the emotion, while Remain mastered the facts. It is somewhat simplistic.

Of course both campaigns relied on emotion. You don’t win a campaign by pointing to facts all day long. If you don’t know that, the chances are you are not a very good campaigner.

But Leave offered a more positive vision, that of a global, free-trading Britain, liberated from the shackles of Brussels bureaucracy and able to spend more on its domestic services, like the NHS. It had its own negative tones: fear of immigration was a vote-winner. The spin around that issue was entirely negative. Leave’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, understood something that most people still don’t understand today. I encourage you to read this particular blog post from him if you haven’t already.

Yet the Remain campaign was built around fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of the consequences. Theirs was a campaign which, based on books of statistics, simply said ‘Look at how many jobs depend on the EU’, or ‘This much of GDP is thanks to the Single Market’ to show what the UK could lose if we left.

Since the referendum, I have heard people argue that if the Remain side had fought a more positive emotional campaign, such as ‘The EU has given us 70 years of peace in a war-torn continent’ or ‘Look at the opportunities to live, work and play across the EU our grandparents didn’t have’, it might have won.

Erm, put simply, no.

The likelihood is that, had the Remain camp done so, it would have been trounced. The Remain camp was right to fight a campaign based on economic arguments. That was its best shot.

The reason is simple. Brits generally did not have (note that I use the past tense ‘did’ because I think that has now changed) an underlying emotional attachment to the EU, unlike many continental Europeans.

When Europe emerged from WWII, the UK didn’t share the need to unite with other European countries in a peace project. When the UK contemplated joining the EEC as it was called back in the 70s, it was for economic reasons above all. Britain was struggling. Joining a large market on its doorstep made economic sense, not emotional sense.

The Channel has always formed some sort of psychological barrier for most Britons. Brits rarely tended to think of themselves as Europeans, again until recently. It isn’t uncommon to hear ‘I’m going to Europe next week’ when referring to France or Germany. Nobody on the continent would say they are going to ‘Europe’ because they are hopping across a border for the day. The 33km separating Dover from Calais can feel like 5,000km sometimes.

When Britain was part of the EU, the EU flag was as visible on public buildings as ‘warm’ English beer is on a Czech table. The British never ‘saw’ Europe at home.

The Remain camp knew all this. They would have needed 10 years at least to build up an emotional attachment to the EU, which is time they didn’t have. So fighting on economic rationale was almost certainly the right thing to do. It almost paid off.

Myth #2: the young voted to remain, the old for Brexit

This one annoys me. There is some truth to it but as with many political claims around election time, it’s wildly overblown.

The truth is too many young people (36% of the 18-24 age group) didn’t bother to vote at the referendum. That’s more than 1 in 3 young people. Almost 30% of 18-24s voted for Leave.

Sure, more young people voted for Remain and even more older people voted for Brexit.

But there are far clearer contrasts between the two sets of voters than age. The level of education is the single most important differentiator.

And some of the most committed Remainers were hardly young. As heroic as Steve Bray was (the StopBrexit man who stood outside Parliament every day for around 2 years), he can hardly be called young. A look at the mass demonstrations up and down the UK to stop Brexit, there were many, many grey-haired and retired people in them.

Hitting the old over the head over Brexit is too simplistic.

Myth #3: lots of people changed their mind

The People’s Vote campaign was absolutely right to push for a second vote. It made sense. But their often repeated claim that people had changed their minds on Brexit was misleading.

The truth is that some people did change their mind. But they were not a majority. And for every person who voted Leave who had changed their mind, another person had gone in the opposite direction.

Source: BBC, ‘Have voters changed their minds over Brexit?’, 12 March 2018

Source: BBC, ‘Have voters changed their minds over Brexit?’, 12 March 2018

The result is that the overall polls changed little despite 4 years of continuous national debate on the issue.

Regardless of the millions who turned out for mass demos against Brexit, there were just as many people who were holding on tight to their Brexit dreams, or just didn’t like the idea that foreign judges were telling us Brits what to do (their words, not mine).

The lesson: the power of the press barons

But undoubtedly the biggest lesson for me is the damage that the Eurosceptic press barons caused over 40 years by railing against the EU at every development.

The Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Times form the lion’s share of news readers in the country, and they are – bar the Times, a more moderate Eurosceptic publication – rabidly anti-EU.

They helped shape a dominant narrative over 40 years about a wasteful, bureaucratic and undemocratic EU which Britain would be better off without.

Yes, the EU was facing enormous crises in the midst of the referendum, which are still unresolved today. The euro crisis and the migration crisis caused lasting damage.

But you can’t undo 40 years of EU-bashing easily. In people’s collective conscience, certain stereotypes – the EU gravy train, the EU’s wastefulness, and the fanaticism of the euro-federalists – had formed, and it was going to be hard to undo that.

Where was the Remain camp during those 40 years? That is the biggest lesson. It was largely busy with its own things and cared too little for Europe. The Remain camp had yet to be formed. It was passive and mostly ambivalent.

It is a great shame. The EU was worth fighting for. It took the threat of leaving for the Remain side to emerge. Many people now do feel more European in Britain, and the EU flag is now more visible than at any point since the UK joined the EEC.

But the Remainers were 40 years behind. 40 years behind the half-truths and EU-bashing the UK’s press barons delighted in.

They had too much ground to cover. They almost did it though.

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