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 They were upholders of outdated prejudice.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.






Whatever the Result, the No Campaign failed

Maybe the No campaign will limp lamely over the finishing line as winners; maybe they won’t.   The opinion pollsters seem as bemused as the rest of us.  But if they do win, whatever the margin, let nobody describe this as a triumph. As a campaign, and as an exercise in true public relations the No campaign has been an abject, cringing failure at almost every stage. Overwhelmingly, the arguments should have been on their side. It was virtually an open goal, politically.  But somehow, the dry, unimaginative,  dullards shaping the campaign, apparently without an iota of PR intelligence between them, have managed to create the incredible possibility of a Yes win.  Even if the No camp succeed, the hostility and bitterness spread by their negative campaigning will have damaged the United Kingdom for decades to come.

The dream of Scottish independence was never a dream for bean counters.  It was never about the price of goods in Tesco , nor interest rates, nor the level of taxes.  Yes, all these things mattered, and they all belonged in the debate.  But it was never about practicalities.  It was a dream, a vision, a wild, romantic, myth-laden , joyful, utterly impractical fantasy, astonishingly made practical by the  rumpled, tubby, golden-tongued, politically canny Emperor of Holyrood.

Salmond stirred up a broth of hope and longing.  He reached back into legend and history; he recited poetry from the heart, and evoked potent , wonderful, half-formed visions, allowing his fellow-dreamers to colour them in.  It was never about detail for Alex Salmond, never about book-keeping.  Don’t ask him about post-independence currency, don’t question Scotland’s right to membership of the European Union.  These quibbles had no place in the big picture. They had no tune to contribute to the old music he was stirring in the hearts of the Scottish people. He had the clans on the march again.

To counter this, the No campaign chose its own champion.  Alistair Darling. Lawyer, former Chancellor, decent, competent, sensible, joy-killing, dry-as-dust political Dementor, tasked with spreading depression and despair through the Yes campaign ranks.  And gloom, overwhelmingly, was the strategy of the No campaign.  Talk up the risks.  Threaten disaster.  Listen to these bankers, these brokers, these economists. They’ll tell you how bad things will be. With war looming, the No campaign platoon was put in the hands of Private Frazer . “We’re doooomed ! ”  

Only in the final, dying days of the campaign, with the shocking possibility of defeat suddenly looming, did any sense of passion seem to enter the hearts of the No campaigners.  But even then, it was largely a joyless passion.  It was fear. It was grief.  “Don’t leave us. We need you”. The cry from Westminster sounded like the doomed wail at the end of an affair.

How humiliating, too, embarrassing, unconvincing, manipulative and crass was the sudden rush in the last few days of the campaign to offer the people of Scotland an array of shining new new privileges and rights.  This was like the man who has forgotten his wedding anniversary stopping on the way home to grab a few bunches of flowers from the garage round the corner.  If the No campaign leaders really believed, in their hearts, that the people of Scotland deserved these extra trinkets, why were they not on offer from the outset?

But where was the pride and joy in all the Union has achieved? Where the vision of these great nations shaping their future place in the world, each lending special strength to the other?  The unique synergy of cultures, values, beliefs and abilities that is the United Kingdom has been unparalleled in the history of this planet.  It has been, and still is, absolutely a force for decency, civilisation, tolerance and democracy, and by god, the world needs those qualities right now.  If you believe these things, then taking apart such a precious creation would be an act of childish, hubristic political vandalism.

Of course, the warnings and the practicalities had their place in the argument.  But campaigning against  the passions unleashed by Salmond, something more was needed than Belloc’s “always keep a-hold of Nurse; For fear of finding something worse.” We needed to believe in something better.  In this, whatever the Referendum result, the No campaign failed.

Terence Fane-Saunders
16th September, 2014

What Worked Yesterday

So it begins. Chelgate has joined the blogosphere.
I’m writing this on board Eurostar, after a quick visit to our Brussels office, where the mood seems more upbeat and assertive than I can remember for some time. Now that the Irish have fallen into line over the Lisbon Treaty, and indications are that the Czechs will do the same, it really seems that ratification will be more or less inevitable. And that, of course, poses a sticky problem for the Tories. What becomes of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum?
I’d guess that the Tories will have to back-pedal on the pledge. Holding a referendum once the treaty is ratified would make very little sense. The horse will have bolted, the stable door will hang ajar.
Of course, in a real world of common sense and honest dealing, it should be possible for the Tories to adapt their position to the changed reality. If you promise a patient a life – saving operation, but they die before reaching the operating table, you’re hardly going to plough ahead with the surgery.
And this patient’s certainly dead. The debate is over. If the treaty is ratified, then the referendum would be little more than a pointless post mortem. The guarantee simply wouldn’t apply any more, in that real world of common sense and honest dealing.
But, of course, this is not the world of British politics . Chances are that if the Tories do attempt to re-cast their cast iron guarantee, angry fingers will be pointed across the floor of the House, cries of “turncoat” will fill the air (and perhaps not just from the Labour benches). If Gordon Brown is quick on his feet, he should be able to land a few painful blows below the Cameron beltline. Weak, naive, fickle and inconstant. It’s easy to imagine the epidemic of epithets.
But while none of this would be really justified, and of course responsible Opposition adjusts its policies in light of events, the Tories also have themselves to blame. A basic rule of issues management is that you never make promises you mightn’t be able to keep. Good intentions alone are not enough. The public, usually, doesn’t give a fig for your intentions. It’s what you do that counts. In this case, David Cameron not only made the promise, but he gilded it and preserved it in the golden language of the soundbite. “A cast iron guarantee”. A phrase like that was never going to slip gently into obscurity.
But the Tory team are pretty astute. I wouldn’t expect them to wait for the Czech ratification before they redefine their position. Nor would I expect them simply to announce a change of policy. They should probably devote the next few weeks to a vigorous assault on Labour, pointing out that ratification will kill the last chance for the British people to have their say; that it will deny the British people the chance of the referendum which every major party has promised them; that if the chance of a referendum dies, it is the Labour party that has killed it. Before they actually announce a change of position, they should be re-defining the landscape of the debate. They need to build common acceptance that ratification changes everything, that if the hoped of a referendum is to be denied to the British people, it is because Labour has killed it, not because the Tories have abandoned it.
If they do prepare the ground this way, then they should be able to float a new policy for post-ratification, without appearing to be performing a contorted u-turn. But if they leave it too late, or fail to shape the debate over the next few weeks, I would expect Labour to have a happy field day with David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee”.
It’s our 21st
It is actually 21 years this month since Chelgate opened for business. During that time, we have seen a revolution in our profession. The techniques, the resources, the very definition of our role have all changed beyond measure. Above all, the Internet has re-written the rules of good public relations and public affairs practice . I’ll be returning to these changes in later blogs. But perhaps what’s most important is not to look back, but to look ahead. The pace of change is accelerating, and new forces are reshaping the way that people interact with the world around them – with government, with business and with each other. Even months ago it would have been hard to forecast the impact of Twitter on public life. In just the last few days we have seen how the new phenomenon of the “Twitterstorm” had the power to tear the blindfold and gag off Trafigura’s watertight legal injunction on the Guardian. This must be stirring wild surmise in the hearts of lawyers and media relations professionals the world over. What barriers are safe? What can’t be done? At Chelgate, our task must be to ensure not just that we understand how to protect and promote our clients’ interests in this altered world. We must understand the changing possibilities for our business, looking ahead constantly, and never, for one instant, thinking that what worked yesterday will probably work just as well tomorrow.
The months and years ahead should be an exhilarating journey for our profession. Enjoy the ride with us. Stay in touch with the blog.
Terence Fane-Saunders
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