Thursday, 20 October 2016

Why Remain really lost the Brexit vote

There's a fascinating piece on Politico this morning from Daniel Korski. Korski was deputy director of Cameron's policy unit, and was intricately involved in both the renegotiation of the UK's EU membership and the subsequent referendum campaign.

It's a long read, covering the renegotiation process itself, as well as the campaign. In it, Korski attempts to identify why Stronger In lost the referendum. Mercifully, it's an in depth analysis forgoing the 'frustratingly simplistic' reasons - as Korski himself points out - that have been mooted for the result thus far.

That said, it still makes some erroneous assumptions and conflations. Most of all though, it gives an incredible insight, seemingly lost on Korski himself, as to an underlying reason that Stronger In lost the referendum, namely, contempt for the electorate.

One of the accusations levelled at Cameron was that the renegotiation was a sham. I too am guilty of making this assumption, though I am happy to have been proven wrong by this piece. Korski describes in great detail the sheer amount of effort it took in order to extract the terms that Cameron did.

"Cameron was tireless; he visited every EU country and spoke to every leader several times. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Europe Minister David Lidington worked with their counterparts, and former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair were brought in to help.
In support of these high-level efforts, we designed a diplomatic campaign for every European country unlike anything the U.K. has conducted since the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Each British ambassador was tasked with taking the argument for reform into the public realm and putting forward the key points in private to the most important decision-makers."

It is clear that far from the sham some ardent eurosceptics would have us believe the renegotiation was, sincere and high level efforts were made to curry favour and to get European leaders on side in order to fundamentally change the nature of the UK's relationship with the EU. Nevertheless, Cameron found himself beating his head against a brick wall.

"Most saw the talks as a nuisance to be dealt with, dangerous to Europe, or damaging to their political careers... Officials in the newly elected Socialist government in Portugal, for example, refused to budge on any of our demands and were deeply skeptical of our motives... Sweden wanted the U.K. to remain in the European bloc, but could under no circumstances agree to what we were asking... the European Parliament saw it as a bid for special treatment and, eventually, as an attempt to violate the EU’s basic freedoms. Juncker seemed to be seeking to give the U.K. a fair deal — as long as it didn’t require too fundamental a reform."

As a result of this obfuscation Korski regards the deal Cameron got as nothing short of miraculous. But it merely serves to highlight just how averse to reform the EU really is. Whilst operating under the assumption Cameron hadn't really tried, one could make the argument that a less europhile Prime Minister may well have extracted more favourable terms for our membership and thus we would not have voted to leave.

However, it is clear reading Korski's piece that Cameron and his team really did try to get clear, fundamental reforms for the UK, and they simply weren't forthcoming. This should really lay to rest any argument that we could have voted remain, in order to reform and reshape the EU in our own image.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post though, it's the lack of respect for the electorate that really shines through. Korski describes Cameron's emergency brake on EU workers claiming in-work benefits as "too complex to explain to ordinary voters". The condescension is almost unbelievable. Whilst I'm sure no-one would argue that these things are anything but complicated, the assumption that the great unwashed are too thick to comprehend it, especially when faced with arguably the most important plebiscite this country has had in decades, is risible.

The campaign apparently made similar assumptions with regards to the protections secured for the City.

"Unfortunately, Osborne’s deal required a master’s degree in financial regulation to explain. The package was too complicated to become a key part of the campaign. And anyway we were wary of getting boxed into a position where it looked like we had mainly worked to get the bankers in the City a good deal."

Again, one would never assume that these things are anything but highly complicated, but the outright dismissal of using the concessions in the campaign as being over the heads of the electorate doesn't half rankle.

Note also the aversion of wanting to seem like Cameron had worked to secure a deal for the City. The assumption clearly being that the public would not see this as an important safeguard for the most important part of our economy and instead just scream 'ugh, bankers!' whilst ticking Leave in the voting booth.

This cynicism is also highlighted in the, ultimately abandoned attempts, to manipulate the franchise in favour of a Remain vote. There were plans to extend the franchise to 16 year olds, which were discarded for political reasons. Similarly, an attempt to resurrect the Conservative manifesto pledge to extend the vote to Britons overseas was ditched when it ran afoul of the Electoral Commission. No attempt to make the case for EU membership, just an exploration of ways in which to game the system.

There's certainly an element of living in a bubble evident in Korski's account. No more so is this pronounced than in his discussion of the economic dangers of leaving.

The biggest folly of the Remain campaign was the conflation of the EU with the Single Market. Everyone could see that there were plenty of successful countries outside of the EU, including the likes of Norway who are nevertheless members of the Single Market.

This, more than anything, was why the electorate rejected the forecasts of economic armageddon made by Stronger In. Korski claims that they 'did not have to invent the dangers', yet that is precisely what they had done. The assumptions made by their models were refuted almost as soon as they were published.

Yet Korski, and apparently by extension the remain campaign, was so far removed from reality that they believed the economic case was done and dusted. "We won the economic argument so comprehensively and so early that it was seen as a given, rather than core to the decision." The arrogance on display, and sheer detachment from reality, is as hilarious as it is terrifying.

"I think we were right to focus the campaign on the economic case. Where we went wrong was in our inability to connect the economic costs and benefits of the decision to ordinary people’s lives. The European single market was too esoteric a concept.

Meanwhile, Vote Leave happily ignored the facts and distorted the figures. Voters didn’t believe us when we told them that we had calculated that leaving the EU would make the average household some £4,300 worse off. But Leave’s argument that Britain was “sending” £350 million a week to Brussels was believed."

Once again the electorate are dismissed as insufficiently intelligent to grasp the 'esoteric' concept of the Single Market, despite almost every refutation of Stronger In's economic claims centering around the distinction between the the EU and the EEA.

Furthermore, I've yet to come across a Leave voter who didn't know that the £350m figure was a gross figure and thus not an accurate one. They saw the spin and mathematical contortions behind that claim just as easily as they did those behind the £4300 figure. But acknowledging this scuppers the Remainer argument that voters were somehow duped into voting to Leave the EU.

But this contempt with which the government and the remain campaign treated the electorate was pronounced throughout the campaign, and has been in the aftermath. Leavers have been portrayed as everything from knuckle dragging idiots to racist little englanders wanting to retreat from the world.

There's undoubtedly some unsavoury characters within the Brexiteer ranks, just as there is on the other side of the argument. But the overwhelming majority of us want Britain to look outwards to the world rather than being stuck in the parochial EU.

One of the more fascinating and heartening things that has come from the entire debate is the consensus that has grown around removing global trade barriers and pursuing trade deals with as many nations as possible, regardless of whether one believes we are better placed to do that ourselves or as part of the EU. A welcome contrast to, for example, the protectionist instincts currently being displayed by both main candidates in the US Presidential campaign.

Korski laments that "the case that it was possible to be both independent and European was not made." On the contrary, an independant UK co-operating and trading with it's European neighbours whilst not bound by political union, is precisely the case we on the Leave side have been making for years. Thankfully, that was the argument that won out.

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