Brexit: How the Remain campaign failed us
The campaigning is finally over, the results are in, and the dust is beginning to settle as we all come to terms with the fact that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union by a majority of 51.9% to 48.1%. Although much critisism has been levelled at the lies and xenophobia of the leave campaign, which have undoubtedly swayed a lot of voters, we must also recognise the immense damage done by a Remain campaign which was at best pessimistic and defensive, and at worst completely incompetent.
It seemed from day one that the remain campaign had decided that rather than inform the voting public about the massive benefits of our EU membership, that their campaign would be run on the rhetoric of fear and uncertainty. A “leap in the dark” was the mantra from the Remain camp. No positive notions such as unity, friendship, cooperation, freedom of movement, greater opportunities, just a “leap in the dark” if we leave. The message this sends to the voter is clear, “we don’t like it either, but it’s probably better than leaving”.
Now lets look at the other side of the debate, what was the mantra for the Brexiters?
“Taking back control.”
Now that’s an idea you can rally around.
And the comparative weakness of the In campaign was not isolated to catchphrases; the rhetoric of this debate - positive action (Leave) vs inaction due to uncertainty (Remain) - ran deep to the core. Granted, the Leave campaign was not entirely exempt from this, naturally, when it came to immigration, the scaremongering from the Leave campaign began to rear its ugly head, culminating in Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster. Yet even the Leave campaign adapted their tactics during the debates in order to focus on the positives of controlling immigration, with much talk about looking ‘beyond’ Europe and bringing in the ‘best talent’ from across the world. But the Remain campaigners, rather than dispelling this argument and laying out the clear benefits that EU migration has offered for the UK, decided instead to go with the counterargument that we would probably have to accept similarly high levels of immigration in order to remain part of the single market post Brexit - essentially a weak admission that the free movement of people is a necessary evil, rather than an essential part of Britain’s success.
In a political environment where having a strong, positive vision is crucial, the Remain camp ran a risky campaign, hoping that they could scare voters out of leaving - and the gamble went horribly wrong.
But this isn’t the first time that we’ve seen a campaign run in this way, it was painfully reminiscent of the equally terribly run Better Together campaign during the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, which was epitomised by the bafflingly awful ‘Woman Who Made up her Mind’ campaign film, in which a Scottish woman engages in a two-and-a-half minute fearful monologue to the camera. That campaign narrowly avoided the breakup of the United Kingdom. This time, we weren’t so lucky.
“Project fear” as it became known, grew, escalated, and ultimately peaked, when David Cameron suggested in May that “peace and stability… [cannot be] assured beyond any shadow of doubt” and it is not a “risk worth taking”, before going on to mention war in the Balkans, genocide in Srebrenica and “tanks rolling into Georgia and Ukraine”. This type of political fear mongering was indicative of a campaign which reeked of unnecessary desperation.
When it came to the televised debates, Remain, frankly, got hammered. And this is not because their arguments were weaker, as we know from the vast support for Remain by experts in every field, but rather because the speakers for the Remain side were, in general, shockingly poor. Whilst the leave campaign were fronting charismatic speakers such as Gisela Stewart, Andrea Leadsom and Nigel Farage (who, whether you agree we them or not, are strong, well-spoken debaters) the only speaker for Remain who seemed charismatic enough, informed enough, and quick-witted enough to counteract their claims and convey the real value of the UK remaining in the European Union was Ruth Davidson, who deserves great credit for her performance in the BBC debate. Jeremy Corbyn was absent. And as for David Cameron and Sadiq Khan, well, I wish they had been absent.
But the question has to be asked, if the Remain campaign had all the experts on their side, where were they during these debates? Why were all the pro-Remain economists, business leaders, academics and scientists absent from the face of the Remain campaign? Did the Remain campaign not realise what every single person in Britain realised a long time ago - that we don’t trust establishment politicians? Where were people like Professor Michael Dougan, a specialist in European constitutional law, whose excellent speech dispelling some of the Leave myths about the EU went viral on social media? Why didn’t we see him on the TV debates? Where were the people from the Bank of England, the IMF, the IFS, the OECD, the WTO, and the chief execs of most of the top 100 companies in the UK? Where were they all?
People are exhausted by politicians, and we needed a message of hope and positivity about our EU membership to be delivered from people we can trust. The Remain campaign’s failure to recognise this has cost us dearly.
It has yet to be seen what the full consequences of the Brexit vote will be. Some people are calling this referendum result a win for anti-intellectualism, whereby facts, figures and expert opinions have been subjugated in the debate. However, if this accusation is to be levelled, the Remain campaign should not be so quick to point the finger.