The message on my phone said: “I’m so, so sorry”.

That’s how I learnt that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. This is something I had feared from the moment the UK general election exit polls correctly predicted last year that the Conservatives would win an overall majority and hold a referendum on Britain’s membership to the EU. In the end it was close, closer at least than the now discredited polls had suggested: 52% to 48% in favour of leaving. By mid-morning the Prime Minister, David Cameron had resigned and the heir-presumptive, Vote Leave’s star man Boris Johnson cut a sombre figure at his first press conference after the result was confirmed in Manchester. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was laying the ground for another referendum on Scottish independence as voters north of the border overwhelmingly voted ‘in’ while England and Wales voted ‘out’. In the fallout, Sinn Fein began to argue they too wanted to revisit the Northern Irish settlement and murmurs of a vote there began to swirl. The political world of the UK fell into a chaos no-one appeared to be prepared for but few were surprised to see.

How did we get to this? This article is not an end-of-the-world piece on the consequences of Brexit – there are plenty of those already. Instead, it tracks the disastrous repercussions of a campaign fought on both sides which threw out measured, reasonable discussion in favour of misinformation, confusion and toxic rhetoric and resulted in Britons voting to leave the single largest trading bloc in the world and the most ambitious political project in post-war history.

Deliberate Confusion

This was an expensive campaign. Estimates put the combined total spend on the referendum by Vote Leave (the official ‘leave’ campaign) and Britain Stronger In Europe (the official ‘in’ campaign) at around £28 million. For context, the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 cost an approximate £16 million, three years earlier the referendum on the introduction of the alternative vote system (AV) cost just shy of £5.5 million while in the same year, the Welsh devolution referendum came in around £2 million[1]. The rise in use of referenda in British politics and indeed politics across Europe (one can think of the European Constitution referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005, for example) is part of a broader trend towards more direct participatory democracy. This is exemplified in the UK under David Cameron who has held an unprecedented number of referenda since he took the reins in 2010 (nine in modern British history, four of which have been held under Prime Minister Cameron). The danger of over-reliance on direct democratic practices is amply demonstrated in these campaigns as argued in Blokland (2011), insofar as the campaigns are able to stoke up irrational and dangerous views which are divorced from reality. In this campaign, the amount of money spent is incongruous; it also emphasises the scale of resources available to the main players in this campaign. They had money, they had television airtime and the attention of the whole of Europe. Regardless, both campaigns failed comprehensively.

Despite the money and their influence, it became increasingly clear that as the campaign wore on voters we extremely confused as to the campaign ‘facts’. The BBC broadcast three campaign debates, as well as there being one on ITV and another each on Channel 4 and Sky News. Each TV debate featured some of the campaigns’ big hitters (Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Michael Gove, Kate Hoey, Pritti Patel, Ruth Davison among others) and yet the mood around the UK leading up to the vote was in large part defined by confusion. On referendum day, the polls suggested that 10% of the electorate were still undecided. Who can blame them? The misinformation being presented on both sides meant that developing an objective idea about what membership of the EU meant for Britain and understanding the case for leaving the EU was neigh on impossible, even for those voters willing to spend their evenings with the coverage.

In a survey of UK voters conducted by Ipsos Mori, the survey found that UK voters consistently overestimated the number of EU citizens living in the UK, that UK voters consistently overestimated the EU budget and Britain’s contribution to it and that they consistently overestimated the total amount paid out in welfare benefits to EU citizens in the UK. With such an astonishing amount of money spent on the campaign, these findings beg the questions: how was the ‘in’ campaign unable to educate voters and how did the ‘out’ campaign successfully mislead the public? How did democratic debate and deliberation fail so spectacularly?

 poll card

Misinformation and Dog Whistle Rhetoric

The fallout of this referendum will be felt for many years and in a huge numbers of areas: trade, education, foreign policy, currency rates and more. However, the most immediate consequence of the referendum is a country utterly divided, and for that, the referendum campaign teams must take responsibility. Both campaigns apparently deliberately failed to educate the public or offer much by the way of a complete picture of the EU and the UK’s membership. The out campaigns have the distinction of having engaged in some of the most inflammatory and divisive rhetoric in modern British political history, and perhaps the most deadly since Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. For example, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was responsible for a poster campaign showing a line of refugees walking across Europe with the headline ‘Breaking Point’. The poster, widely held to resemble some of National Socialism’s most horrifying anti-Semitic propaganda, came to epitomise the xenophobic rhetoric that defined the various ‘out’ campaigns.

The out campaigns told voters again and again that Britain need to ‘take control’ of its borders; indeed, ‘Take Control’ was the official Vote Leave campaign slogan. The outers said that the NHS and the welfare system were at breaking point, that schools were overcrowded and public services pushed to the limit. The implication, sometimes made explicit, was that the reason for this is the free movement of people from the EU to the UK. The Vote Leave campaign stoked fears of Turkish accession to the EU, with some campaign materials sent to voters suggesting that 75 million Turks (population 79 million) were preparing to move to the UK if Turkey becomes a member state. This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of untrue statements made by the out campaigns, repeated often enough to enter into British public discourse as truth.

This has been a failure of debate and discussion. Britain’s leading politicians failed over and over to give their electorate reasoned discussion, indeed Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary and number two on Vote Leave commented that, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Perhaps most worryingly, he’s probably right. As sociologist Laurie Taylor commented: “Turkeys will vote for Christmas if there’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the middle class while they do it”. Gove, in his refusal to engage in proper debate, echoes these sentiments. Vote Leave’s campaign was built around resentment to perceived social and political elites; it ruthlessly targeted the disaffected, the disengaged and the ignored. There was no attempt made on either side to reach out to these voters and debate the ideas around the referendum, and Vote Leave successfully exploited that. This failure, and the stoking of the worst instincts of the British electorate, will be just part of the legacy of a campaign rooted in fear and mistrust.

Not only do the political consequences of Britain leaving the EU pose significant questions. There are also many important lessons to be learned from the campaign preceding the referendum. In a follow up blog post, I will therefore examine alternative pluralist approaches to direct democratic practices and ask whether there is a danger in viewing referenda as the purest form of democratic participation. The blog will examine the necessity of deliberative democratic approaches as advanced by Dahl (1950) on emotive topics which have the potential to become inflammatory as we have seen here. Finally, the blog will explore deliberative solutions to democratic debate which have the capacity to safeguard campaigns from spiralling into the kind inflammatory rhetoric that came to define this campaign.


[1] These figures refer to the spend of the official campaigns as recognised by the Electoral Commission, the total spend in all referendums is likely to be much higher. For instance, The Guardian reported the actual spend on the AV referendum was around £75 million.

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