16 take-aways from the referendum campaign
Turn-out looks as if it has been extraordinarily high for this referendum, not that that is making it any easier to predict. I did read one analysis which suggested that a very high turnout (above 75%) would favour Leave, since it meant all the customarily non-voting anti-establishment types had decided to turn up and vote to leave. But who knows? Another few hours and the apparent indecision of Britain will have finally become a decision, and one which about half of us will apparently hate.
Meanwhile, before the reality offers us the chance for reams of further comment, here are my take-aways from the campaign just concluded.
1. The Leave campaign has actually been a blinder. It was consistently under-estimated at the start – possibly part of its deliberate strategy – with rumours of persistent infighting, rivalry between the Johnson/Gove and Farage outfits, and the lack of a clear vision of Britain after Brexit. Nevertheless, they learned some core messages of political campaigning first honed in 1930s Germany. They found a scapegoat class and caricatured it to the point of irrational hatred. They lied often and glibly, and maintained their lies – especially the favoured one about £350 million a week going to Brussels. Their lead figure was consistently inconsistent when comparing his views of the campaign with his views from before the campaign. And they had the biggest media hitters of the lot firmly on side – the best-selling tabloid press.
2. Which brings me to the second point. The largely foreign owned, right-wing tabloids have never been known as models of rational argument and balanced reporting, but they’ve outdone themselves this time. While the Remain campaign has had to rely on the more nuanced and considered support of the Guardian and some columnists in the Times and Independent, the Mail, Express and Sun – and the Telegraph, which sits uneasily between tabloid and quality press – have gone all out for the Leave campaign. By relentlessly placing immigration on their front pages more or less consistently in the run-up to today’s vote, they have ensured that Leave’s key attraction has reached millions of readers. That has been a great coup – albeit one that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – for the Leave campaign.
3. The Remain campaign over-dosed on Project Fear and then found it difficult to row back. They forgot that most of their supporters and likely allies amongst undecided voters would respond more warmly to a less strident campaign. George Osborne’s future budget speech was a spectacular mis-fire. It is also possible that David Cameron would have benefitted if he had taken a less prominent role and allowed others to head up the Remain campaign. This might in particular have lessened the vitriolic antagonism he has aroused amongst his opponents in the Tory party.
4. Too much of the British electorate is irrational and uninterested in boring things like facts. It’s why Boris Johnson, a mendacious and slippery political performer, still scores so well. He’s funny, you see.
5. Broadcasters focus too much on personalities. This feeds the media strategies of the campaigns and then people complain about a lack of substantive debate as the vicious cycle carries on downwards.
6. Referendums are fundamentally a bad thing. There’s a reason why we have a parliamentary system, not the least of which is that most voters genuinely can’t be arsed to think about political questions in anything other than headlines and images. The political class needs to rediscover some respect for itself and its vocation and stop passing everything on to the public at large.
7. Celebrities, with very few exceptions, encourage derision for the cause they support. They should shut up. Unless they’re David Beckham or Sheila Hancock.
8. The Labour Party is in a serious mess. Jeremy Corbyn has shown that he has no idea how to fight a national campaign, and has failed to provide any sort of useful leadership for his party on the most significant issue the country has debated in over a generation. Worse, most of his MPs know this but can’t do anything about it because they took their eye off their own party and allowed it to be taken over by hard-line Corbynistas. If Jezza hangs up his leadership chops before the next election then it’s a racing certainty that John McDonnell will take over. Time for Labour MPs to start re-reading their histories of the SDP.
9. The Tories hate David Cameron. They hate him because he tried to modernise their party. They hate him even more for the fact that he almost succeeded and showed that it was an election winning strategy. They hate him because he doesn’t really like them. They hate him because he’s not Margaret Thatcher and doesn’t invoke her name in every speech. They hate him because he’s a metropolitan liberal. They hate him because of gay marriage. And boy, do they really hate him over Europe. They could tolerate him while he kept up an air of mild scepticism towards Europe, but now the mask is off and they will never forgive his leadership of the Remain campaign. Win or lose tomorrow, he and his successors are eventually toast as far as many Tory members are concerned.
10. Despite 9 above, the Tory party is actually much more united than the campaign suggests. Whatever the referendum result they will soon be led by a right-of-centre populist Leave supporter – probably Johnson, maybe Gove. Theresa May won’t beat either of them and the rump of the once proud Tory One Nation tradition will remain largely unheard – for they are small in number and low in status. Under a new rightist leader the party members, and the majority if not all of the MPs, will quickly rally round. There is no tradition of the Tory left making serious trouble for right-wing leaders, and it will be astonishing how quickly this poison is drawn once the Cameroons are out. Amazingly, they can probably even look forward to another election victory thanks to 8 above.
11. The Liberal Democrats are still in shock over their 2015 defeat. They have failed to make any real impact in this campaign despite being a homogenously pro-European party. They have failed too to pick up any advantage from the Tory civil war or the Labour party’s contagious apathy. If there is any time for a strong centrist and internationalist voice to emerge in British politics it is now, but the Liberal Democrats have shown they aren’t it.
12. Everyone on twitter is far more knowledgeable than experts who have studied political issues for decades or politicians who have made it their vocation to pursue them.
13. It is now a ritual humiliation that prime ministers must go through, after a long and dedicated career in public service, to be lambasted by air-headed television audience members who want their 5 minutes of fame for a laborious and not very good insult, and to smile wanly throughout as if it really was a very good point. British political leaders will have regained their self-respect when they have a go back.
14. David Dimbleby should retire. He interrupts too often and doesn’t like anyone to finish an answer if it means having to explain ideas.
15. Jo Cox was a tragedy and a phenomenon. A tragedy that no-one can gainsay. A phenomenon in that a new MP with just a year of work behind her has been garlanded with the praise and honours usually reserved for statesmen or women of many years service, and was certainly denied those old warhorses, also murdered, Ian Gow and Airey Neave. Whether the tragedy of her killing justified the Dianification of her remembrance is a moot point too soon to be debated. That politics looked as if it had become more dangerous certainly seemed to be the case.
16. My final take-away is unhappily the most melancholy. We really are a divided nation. The metropolitan city-scapes and the left-behind rural hinterland no longer inhabit the same polity. There is little common understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. While half the country continues to look outwards and seek the rewards of its ongoing prosperity, the other half continues to decline economically and put up walls against the encroachments on what remains of its lifestyle. In or out, that dichotomy isn’t going away.