As the dust begins to settle in the aftermath of last week’s seismic referendum result, this article considers how the campaign strategies adopted by both sides of the debate may have had a pivotal influence on its ultimate outcome.
From the outset, the Remain camp opted to promote a narrative which centred primarily on the economic benefits of EU membership. Framing the debate around the issues of stability and prosperity had served government strategists well in the both the previous Scottish Independence referendum and more recently in the 2015 General Election. A key aspect of their campaign was thus to leverage the power of ‘expert’ opinion, with strong editorials in prominent newspapers and concise video appeals from carefully chosen leading lights.
However, these sober appeals (which included some of the world’s most respected economists) appeared to underestimate the levels of festering resentment for the UK’s business and political elites. The remain side may have missed a trick by not appealing to the more emotive arguments at their disposal – namely the fact that European Union emerged out of the ashes of two catastrophic world wars which all but destroyed the continent. While a moving piece of content featuring WWII veterans was produced, the strength of the EU as a champion of human progress and cooperation was never really properly harnessed.
This left a vacuum for the Leave camp to position itself as the campaign of heart and also as the self-anointed representative of ‘ordinary decent people’. Considering that only a few months back polls were recording the Leave camp as being 10 points behind, the scale of their comeback is truly remarkable. There were three key messages that this can probably be attributed to. The first is their well publicised claim that leaving the EU would mean Britain could put an extra £350 million into the NHS every week. While this has since been discredited as a misleading claim it gave the leave camp a tangible and emotive economic platform from which to appeal to their target audience.
The second strand of messaging revolved around the sensitive subject of immigration. While the Remain camp thought that this would make the Leave camp appear divisive and xenophobic (see Nigel Farage’s billboard below) they ultimately underestimated just how salient an issue this would be for large swathes of British society.
Both of these arguments boil down to the overarching idea of ‘sovereignty’ – a somewhat ethereal concept in today’s globalised world – which the Leave camp was able to promote as the key issue at stake in this referendum. Their powerful rallying call to “Take back control” proved to be somewhat of a masterstroke, harking back as it does to a rose-tinted age when Britain stood alone as an independent global power.
Ultimately, the Remain camp’s downfall was that it spoke primarily in the language of rational economists whilst the Leave camp were able to strike a more resonant chord with their emotive positioning. Time will tell if Boris’ legacy will be that of great liberator or great lunatic.