How the UK Made Fools of the Experts


A Perspective on the Brexit Campaign

By Terence Fane-Saunders

This has been a bad time for experts

As the people of Britain headed for their polling booths, the opinion polls were almost unanimous. The Remain camp would win, and win comfortably. The financial experts in the City of London rushed to take positions reflecting their same view. Britain would remain “In”. And in the betting markets, hard-nosed professionals were staking heart-jolting sums on what they saw as a certain outcome.

These experts all were wrong.

Quite simply, the British people lied to the opinion polls; or, at least, a large percentage did. And it was quite understandable that they should. Throughout the Referendum campaign, the Remain camp adopted a strategy of threat and insult possibly unparalleled in the history of mainstream British political debate. Brexit supporters were vilified, demeaned even threatened for the views they held.  They were accused of racism, of prejudice and of sheer, ill-educated stupidity if they were even tempted to ignore the tsunami of expert opinion thundering down on them daily from the Remain camp.

As the campaign reached its crescendo, one other theme developed: ageism. Polls were showing that older people were more inclined to support Brexit; the young (including those too young to vote) were strongly in the Remain camp. Gradually an insidious argument was built. These elderly voters were too old, maybe even too senile, to understand; stuck in the past. They were voting on a future they wouldn’t share; barely deserved the right to a say. They were upholders of outdated prejudice. They were old.

This vitriol was not just confined to the messages pumped out from campaign headquarters, it poisoned the waters of social media, and spilt out into real-life human contact. In the workplace, in people’s homes, at social events, contacts were blocked, “friends” unfriended and real friendships ended. And in all this, there was a consistent message coming from the advocates of “Remain”:  if you support Leave, you are a xenophobic, irresponsible, morally inferior, possibly senile idiot.

On the whole, most people don’t like being defined that way.  So, when asked, “Do you support Leave” (meaning, “Are you a xenophobic, irresponsible, morally inferior, senile idiot”) they were quite inclined to answer “No”, or to say they hadn’t yet made up their minds.  But in the privacy of the polling booth, they felt free to vote as they really felt – and to make fools of the opinion polls and humiliate a whole world of chattering experts.

But if the vote itself delivered a crunching, bloody nose to the experts, so too did the campaign.  With all the weight and machinery of Government at his disposal, David Cameron enlisted a stellar list of experts and leaders to deliver almost daily warnings of the dire consequences of a Brexit vote.  Even President Obama was produced in Downing Street to warn that Britain would go the “back of the queue” if it was hoping for any special trade deals following a Brexit.

And a strange thing happened.  The British public turned against the experts.  Michael Gove caught the mood: “People in this country”, he proclaimed, “have had enough of experts”.  And it appeared he was right. Certainly, the great weight of expert opinion, from the IMF and the Bank of England to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had stampeded into the anti-Brexit camp.  And in this perhaps lies the clue as to what went wrong. It was anti-Brexit, not pro-Remain. One after the other, the experts lined up to condemn Brexit.  They warned of economic and social disaster; of a cataclasm leading to a cataclysm. “Project Fear” was launched.  And to terrify any uncertain voters into final submission, Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a “punishment” budget with £30 billion of tax rises and spending cuts which he said would be immediately imposed if the country was irresponsible enough to vote Leave.

But it was a flawed, crude and ineffective strategy. Nobody has ever rallied to a banner inscribed with the words “Or Else”.

Yet the Remain campaign was unremittingly grim, threatening, negative and joyless. It had the opportunity to talk up Britain’s unique and exciting possibilities as part of Europe, but safely outside the Euro, protected by potent powers of veto, and a range of special provisions. There was so much to believe in, to hope for, to celebrate. Instead, they unleashed the black forebodings of Project Fear.  But over at the Leave camp they took a different approach.  They promised change – perhaps the most potent word in the political arsenal.  They recognised that for a great proportion of the British population, life was hard, offering little hope or pleasure. The status quo held no appeal.  Brexit offered the chance of change, a hope of something better, however ill-defined.

The Brexit camp did not have to be too specific.  They just promised better times, when the country would “take back control”.  Boris Johnson injected a sense of hope and fun: “This is like the jailer has accidentally left the door of the jail open and people can see the sunlit land beyond”.  They offered someone to blame – the faceless, unelected bureaucrats of the European Union, and they offered a rallying cry “Independence Day”.  Mostly, too, the Leave campaign were smart enough not to over-use the Immigration issue.  They knew it was working for them already.  And they understood that in areas such as the National Health Service, the role of foreign workers was recognised and welcomed across all levels of society.  So their campaign was never allowed to be just an anti-immigration bandwagon. It was about “establishing control” over immigration, keeping the immigrants we value, getting rid of the ones we don’t.

Negative PR can work, and fear can be a potent force.  But it needs subtlety and understanding of the audience.  On this occasion, there was little sign of either.  Fear, as a campaign strategy, simply didn’t work.  Partly this was because the economic disasters predicted were seen by many less affluent  voters as having little to do with them.  Their view was that, for themselves at least, things couldn’t get much worse anyway.  So they weren’t particularly alarmed.  They felt that these were threats to the banks, to big business, to the property owning middle classes, to the London elite, with their History of Art university degrees. And any pain that might be felt in those circles wouldn’t trouble them greatly.  But the prospect of change in their own circumstances offered a glimmer of hope, and that was worth voting for.

Another problem for the Remain camp was that the issue was complicated beyond the true understanding of even the most well-informed voter.   The staggeringly complex social, economic and political implications of a possible Brexit could at best be comprehended through a cloud of conjecture and uncertain consequences.  But our university-educated middle classes could never accept that any issue was beyond their intellectual grasp. So they fell hungrily upon the expert prognostications pouring out from the Remain camp, and swallowed their apocalyptic visions whole.   They now felt that they too were sufficiently expert to justify certainty of opinion, and that utter certainty coloured what became an increasingly intolerant debate.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
W.B Yeats

For the less affluent and less highly educated, there was a more limited ( and so, perhaps more realistic) attempt to address the issues.  For many, it was like the blind man and the elephant’s tail, comprehending the issue in terms of what was actually within their grasp –  their immediate and personal experience, with no sense of the greater shape of consequences beyond.  And here, unemployment, housing and immigration formed a potent mix.  Finger-wagging lectures from the IMF or dark warnings from the Bank of England would seem less part of the real world that they inhabited day to day. And they bridled at criticism from the more affluent , “educated” class, the angry, condescending tone and the passionate intensity of their newly acquired “expertise”. The temptation to tweak the nose of the Establishment is never far away with the British people..

People tend to believe what they want to believe, and evidence to the contrary can have little impact.  In fact, it can even harden conviction.  This is something we see frequently in our Crisis Management practice, and it was clearly happening here.   But when it comes to voting, people also prefer to vote for people they like, and here again, the Remain camp lost ground throughout the campaign. They were increasingly easy to dislike.

For the Leave camp, Boris Johnson sustained his bumbling, clever, rumpled, cheerful celebrity persona, with a surprising leavening of focus and self-discipline.  Michael Gove restrained the sharper edges of his personality, and came across, mostly, as a decent, courteous and clever man (at least until the Referendum was over).  Nigel Farage performed his pint-in-hand man-of-the-people act, and, when attacked quite successfully portrayed himself as the victim of the hated metropolitan establishment– “When you challenge the establishment in this country, they come after you”. The educated, southern, metropolitan elite largely responded with disdain.  But across the country as a whole the Leave team were connecting with the voters.

The Remain campaign, meanwhile, adopted the guise of a fierce school-teacher, lecturing the quailing public about the punishments to be meted out if they fell out of line.  And people didn’t like it.  More important, they began to dislike the teacher.  But the messages coming from the Remain leadership were given an additional colouring by the poisonous venom injected into the argument  on social media.  The tone adopted by much of the educated elite was the British class system at its worst – arrogant, belittling, aggressive, insulting.   As a Remain supporter myself, but with reservations, it was increasingly difficult to prevent distaste for the advocates of Remain from contaminating objective assessment of the arguments.  But across large parts of Britain, that distaste actually shaped voter intentions.

In the end, fear failed as a PR strategy.  People preferred hope, however crudely ill-defined.  Insults and aggression achieved nothing, but only alienated those who needed to be persuaded.  And a large part of the British public made fools of the experts.

A lesson in bad public relations.