With Italy facing a referendum that could unseat its president, the EU’s member states in furious conflict over immigration, and Hillary Clinton looking like an increasingly shaky last line of defence, our very own Brexit is being held up as the model of a new, disruptive politics.
But its meaning has been debated. For some, Brexit was democracy delivering justice: the West’s ‘first big fightback’, as Nigel Farage said on Sunday, against ‘a metropolitan elite, backed by big business, who’ve just been increasingly getting out of touch with the ordinary voters.’ The counter-narrative is that Brexit was a fake revolution: a coup by fellow-members of the elite who ‘lied to please the mob’.
These contending stories will fight it out in the forthcoming ‘inside stories’ of Brexit, five of which are about to hit the bookshops. But the first of these books, to be published on Monday, suggests that both narratives are defensible. Brexit Revolt, by Michael Mosbacher and Oliver Wiseman of Standpoint magazine (full disclosure: these generous people occasionally print my articles), is based on interviews with some of the Leave campaign’s protagonists, and access to some revealing emails.
Their account suggests, to me, that Farage’s ‘fightback’ story is debatable in its positive conclusions, but hard to deny in its negative ones. This was not simply a people’s revolution. But Brexit was a judgment on an out-of-touch elite, because only an elite that was out of touch could have made so many mistakes.
Yes, the Leave campaign was constructed with a cleverness bordering on, and at times lapsing into, cynicism. Take the ‘Australian points system’ mooted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, which decisively turned the polls towards Leave. Its rhetorical power, according to Mosbacher and Wiseman, was discovered in 2014 by a Ukip staffer. He realised that the words sounded to immigration hardliners like a tough policy; but it also appealed to those who wanted a fairer system – one that was, say, more generous towards Commonwealth immigration.
You could defend this ambiguity by pointing out that political movements are always broad coalitions, and so on. On the other hand, the authors of Brexit Revolt struggle to find a Leave campaigner who will defend the spectacularly successful ‘£350 million a week to the EU’ figure. ‘One Vote Leave insider,’ they report, ‘told us he found the use of £350 million, and its effectiveness, deeply unsettling. The message, he said, is that in politics it pays to lie.’ The Leave campaign’s cunning, then, means Brexit is hard to frame as a peasants’ revolt.
Nevertheless, you can’t get 17.4 million votes just with smart slogans. You have to win the argument; and if Remain failed to, it was partly because they consistently underestimated the strength of Euroscepticism, and overestimated how easily they could overcome it. In that sense, they were just as ‘out of touch’ as Farage suggests.
An early, but typical, misfire was Nick Clegg’s 2014 challenge to Nigel Farage to two televised debates. Clegg hoped he would repeat his success in the 2010 election debates; instead, Farage trounced him (in the second debate, according to one poll, by 68 to 27 per cent).
A similar lack of imagination was at fault in Remain’s choice of Project Fear as their chief referendum tactic. If Mosbacher and Wiseman are to be believed, this was adopted purely on the basis that it had won the Scottish referendum. But its effectiveness in Scotland was exaggerated: support for independence actually went up during Project Fear. And whereas Alex Salmond had produced an economic plan for independence, an easy target for scaremongering, Leave kept their plans vague.
Project Fear also rashly contradicted itself: not only was George Osborne’s ‘£4,300 per household’ easily shown to be ridiculous, but so exact a prediction undermined claims that Brexit would lead to ‘uncertainty’.
And as is now obvious, the public trust in Barack Obama and Christine Lagarde and other powerful leaders was low enough that, the more earnestly these figures lectured from their podiums, the higher the collective eyebrow was raised. (One June poll, quoted in the book, found the authorities most trusted by the public are academics. Maybe Professors For Remain could have kept Britain in the EU.)
The common theme in Remain’s failures was an exaggerated confidence in their ability to make a dubious case to a sceptical public. David Cameron’s renegotiation demonstrated this kind of hubris: by saying he wouldn’t endorse Remain until after the renegotiation, he encouraged MPs and many others to pin everything on what he could squeeze out of EU leaders. The answer turned out to be not very much, and Cameron couldn’t sell it.
So, if there is a lesson from Brexit for frightened elites in America and Germany and wherever else, it would be this. The anti-Establishment rebels may or may not be irresponsible and cynical. But they can’t win unless you make it easy for them.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald