In a general climate of suspicion towards politics, the establishment, and globalisation, Leave campaigners managed to portray themselves as anti-establishment insurgents, despite being led by ultra-establishment figures. They they ran a ruthlessly efficient campaign, strong on the dark arts of manipulating media, manufacturing myths and rebutting anything — however authoritative — that didn’t support their view, brazenly labelling it all as “propaganda” or biased or scaremongering.
They had a clever soundbite, “take control”, which they were disciplined in repeating in every speech and every interview on every subject. It had superficial appeal, and required whole sentences to rebut and explain that we have more control over many issues by being part of the EU. It avoided making any choices on any subject (if you have control, you can do whatever you want, even if that means very different things for different people). The Remain campaign’s slogan was no match.
They successfully shifted the debate to migration. The Remain campaign either avoided the issue, urging people to focus instead on economic benefits, or tried to spell out the benefits of migration — neither of which would convince those with strongly-held concerns. Many of us warned the campaign that it would have been be more useful to point out that we’re better off in the EU even from that standpoint.
They told lies. There was a breathtakingly long list of outright lies told by Brexit campaigners.
They built on 30 years of eurosceptic media stories, an art form pioneered by Boris Johnson himself when he was Telegraph correspondent in Brussels. The constant drip, drip of stories (from straight bananas to the volume of legislation “imposed” on us by “Brussels”) intended to make the Union appear silly or sinister has, over the years, had a major effect on public perceptions of the EU. This was reinforced by the gamut of europhobe newspapers (Mail, Express, Sun, Telegraph) during the campaign itself.
They were helped by the Remain campaign being seen to be led, on the Conservative side, by an inevitably unpopular prime minister in his sixth year of office and a chancellor discredited after his shambolic budget, and on the Labour side by a leader who was unenthusiastic. The official Stronger In campaign was led by the disastrous Lord Rose, rapidly sidelined (but not replaced) after his initial gaffes. It focused so much on the risks of leaving that it did not get across the positives of the EU. It failed sufficiently to deploy the vast array of non-political supporters, from universities to ecologists to businesses.
Now, the Leave lies are coming home to roost. They said there would be no damaging economic consequences — there are. They said securing a new trade deal with the EU will be no problem — it is. They said there would be no threat to the integrity of the UK — it’s emerging.
Rarely has a country’s history been manipulated in such a way against its best interests.