Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 1 October 2019

How the Brexiters have controlled the narrative around Brexit

“Senior allies of Boris Johnson have warned that Britain will face civil unrest on the scale of the gilets jaunes protests in France or the riots in Los Angeles if Brexit is frustrated.” So reports the Times. A well known far right activist says on TV that he is amazed that there have not been riots yet, and also says there should be. In truth the absence of riots is not amazing at all.

Let us leave aside the implication that when Leavers protest it will be a riot rather than a peaceful protest. If you are talking about people protesting or worse on the streets you are not talking about Vox Pops where people tell an interviewer that they are angry parliament has failed to get on with it. You are not talking about responses to opinion polls. Instead we are talking about evidence that people are prepared to protest on the streets.

We have evidence here. When we failed to leave in March, despite repeated promises we would, you might have expect a very angry reaction. Farage addressed a demonstration in which he called the Houses of Parliament ‘enemy territory’. The demonstration was news because anything Farage does seems to be news and also some right wing thugs got aggressive. But in terms of people, we are talking about a few thousand people. A petition for a No Deal Brexit gained a bit more than 600,000 signatures.

If those numbers seem large, compare it to around 6 million signatures for a petition to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU. Or regular large marches all around the country for a People’s Vote, with the biggest in London involving hundreds of thousands of people, all entirely peaceful. It terms of anger and passion, it seems Remainers outnumber Leavers by between 10 and 100 to 1.

If you think about it, this is hardly surprising. If we are honest Leavers have little or nothing to gain after Brexit, and probably a lot to lose. In contrast Remainers have a great deal to lose. Everyone will lose the right to work in the EU. Brexit takes away a European identity. EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, have a great deal to lose.

Will the media ever talk about this asymmetry between gains and losses. Of course most of it won’t, because in truth the number of people who are passionate about delivering Brexit are heavily concentrated in the press, and our media is too dominated by that press. The number of people passionate about Brexit is limited to a few thousand people who have convinced themselves it matters to them, politicians in the ERG and Brexit party, the Brexit press, right wing thugs, and those frightened of no longer being able to avoid tax in the EU.

Despite all the evidence, the idea of riots if we fail to Brexit is firmly implanted in the media. But this is just one aspect of how the Brexiters have dominated the narrative around Brexit. It started of course with the referendum. Cameron no doubt talked about the economics of Brexit during the referendum because he thought the talk of rights would not cut through to those who didn’t feel it. But with two words the Brexiters managed to throw all the expertise involved in Cameron’s warnings into question. The broadcast media obliged by repeating the question ‘isn’t this just Project Fear’ endlessly, and the BBC balanced the expertise of every single academic whose subject was international trade and institution with knowledge of international trade with Patrick Minford.

After the referendum, talking about the emerging impact on the economy of the result to Leave became impossible. The recession predicted by the Treasury did not happen because consumers dipped into their savings, and this forecasting failure became the reason why few talked about the expected depreciation reducing real wages, or the steady divergence between UK GDP and its comparators, and the collapse in investment. If they did try, Leavers would just start talking about the Treasury forecast.

The myth of the need to threaten No Deal as part of the negotiations soon became another piece of the entrenched narrative. I am sure some Brexiters believed it, because they never bothered to understand how the Single Market worked. It was forced upon other Brexiters when the cavalry in the form of the German auto-manufacturers who were going to force the German government into concessions never turned up. But it soon began to have a much more sinister purpose. It was not long before many in the ERG realised the only form of Brexit they would be happy with was No Deal, and from then on their aim was to try and achieve No Deal by default. What better ruse was there for this group than to spread the idea that we could not rule out No Deal for negotiation reasons.

I will end with two narratives at the moment that are the opposite of the truth. The first is that we must leave by October 31st because parliament has already had three years to get Brexit done and has failed. The reality is that the reason a deal has not been done is because of the actions of our current Prime Minister, his predecessor, and those in the ERG who are pushing this narrative. May made getting a deal through parliament difficult by choosing a form of hard Brexit the opposition could not sign up to. However the people who ensured it could not get a majority were the ERG, whose aim was No Deal. The current Prime Minister voted against May’s deal twice. Parliament has failed to agree a deal because the ERG do not want a deal.

It is therefore ludicrous that the people who prevented May getting a deal should pretend they represent the frustrated public against a prevaricating parliament, when they themselves did the prevaricating. Yet this nonsense is repeated time and again and is largely unchallenged. Also ludicrous is the idea that a No Deal Brexit fulfills the wishes of the 52% who voted in the referendum, when those campaigning to leave in the referendum said a deal was certain to be done. Only the Brexiters can get away with using the warnings of the side that lost as proof voters in 2016 knew that No Deal was a possibility, a possibility Brexiters called Project Fear at the time.

The second incredible narrative is that we need to end Brexit with a clean break, and then we can get back to doing other things. A clean break Brexit inevitably leads to 10 years at least of negotiation with the EU, negotiations in which the UK side will eventually be forced to accept the terms the ERG now despise. The longer our government holds out in those negotiations the longer it takes. In reality the so called clean break Brexit is a promise to continue Brexit negotiations but from an even weaker position.

Why have the Brexiters dominated the Brexit narrative over the last three years? One reason I have talked about before is while Remainers tend to focus on facts, most Brexiters are largely uninterested in the details of Brexit and instead concern themselves with generating spin. But the more fundamental reason is that most of the press (by readership) are deeply involved in pushing the Brexit project, and the BBC is too timid to question the narrative pushed by the Brexiters. .

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