Brexit: A tragic triumph of communication over reason

By Charles Okwir

London – 23 July 2016: So much has been said about the socio-political and economic implications of #Brexit since that historic moment a month ago when veteran BBC journalist David Dimbleby dramatically declared in his dawn-break broadcast that, “…the British people have spoken, and the answer is we are out” – out of the European Union that is.  Most analysts, perhaps keen to ride on the newsy ‘Brexit Implications’ tide, simply kicked the communications aspects of Brexit into the long grass – preferring only to give it cursory reference.

And yet, when one looks back at the reasons ordinary British voters have been giving for voting to ‘Leave’ the EU, it is clear that political communication played a decisive role in persuading many people to vote ‘Leave’ in a terribly complex matter about which they knew precious little.  Across the country, ordinary men and women who voted ‘Leave’ sounded like a choir of the blind singing from an inviolable stone-made hymn sheet handed to them at gun point by the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign.

In chorus, they sang: “it’s immigration init” – “immigration is out of control?”  Asked why he voted to ‘Leave’ the EU, one man who spoke to Channel 4 TV simply said: “it’s about getting the Muslims out.”  One gets the sense that in their minds, they could see nothing but the ‘Leave’ campaign’s xenophobic anti-immigration poster which featured what seemed like a sea of immigrants on the move with a bold warning suggesting that Britain had reached ‘Breaking Point’.

The first thing to note is that we now have a brutal reality in contemporary political communication.  It is a reality which tells us that it pays to pick and embellish simple but emotive aspects of complex political issues that ordinary men and women can’t easily wrap their heads around.  In so doing, the shrewd communications strategist will have offered an irresistible escape route for the majority who have neither the time nor the ability to engage in evidence-based analysis in the heat of campaigns.

“We want our country back”, senior ‘Leave’ campaigner Nigel Farage told British voters.  In the days that followed, British streets and airwaves were filled with people behaving like parrots echoing Nigel Farage.  Even Donald Trump, the controversial Republican Party presidential hopeful in the coming US elections joined in the chorus, saying, “they took back their country, that’s a great thing.”

The “take back our country” theme continued with devastating effect on the eve of voting day when the charismatic Boris Johnson (now British Foreign Secretary) used his closing statement at the ‘great’ BBC television debate and declared that “Thursday can be our country’s independence day”, and for that, he got a standing ovation from his supporters.  Coming as it did, at that heated moment on the eve of voting day when millions were glued to their TV sets, one can only applaud the pro-Brexit team for the timing of the so-called ‘independence day’ message – it was perfect.

But of course, the truth is that Boris’s declaration that “Thursday can be our country’s independence day” had no basis in both law and fact – nothing!  In fact, it is inconceivable that any of those who rose to their feet to applaud Boris Johnson could, if given time, have concluded that Britain was a colonised state in any shape or form.  Nonetheless, like the great men who fought for independence from British colonialism, the communications strategists of the ‘Leave’ campaign knew that any talk of “fighting for our independence” evokes a sense of blind patriotism that is bitterly hostile to reason.

Just hear this coming from Boris Johnson: “…the ideal position for us is to take back control tomorrow – of huge amounts of money, so we can spend it on our priorities. Take back control of our immigration system, take back control – fundamentally – of our democracy.”  The emphasis, without doubt, is on the word “our” country, “our” immigration system, and “our” democracy.  None of that was an accidental slip of the tongue: it was, to my mind, a cold and carefully calculated attempt to make Brexit a very personal matter for the uncritical British voter.  In other words, the word “our” gave uncritical British voters the illusion of “owning” this thing called Britain that they, for all intents, could neither see nor touch.

I belong to a school of thought which maintains that, Britain, like any other country, is nothing more than an individual state of mind – you define what it is and you either love it, or loathe it!

And of course, implicit in these emotive messages from the ‘Leave’ campaign was a tacit suggestion that British people had somehow ‘lost their country to some alien European Union colonisers’.  With that, pro-Brexit communications strategists effectively turned Britain into something physical that every British voter who voted ‘Leave’ thought they had lost, and therefore had to fight hard to get it back.

Unlike the ‘Leave’ campaign which focused on spewing out emotive messages wrapped in the “Great Britain” flag, one got the sense that the ‘Remain’ campaign attempted (and failed) to use evidence-based arguments that could withstand rigorous intellectual scrutiny.  Professors came on board.  “The EU (funding) has been incredibly important for science. If we want to remain a forward-looking country we cannot do that alone”, said Prof Steve Cowley – Chief Executive of the “JET fusion power facility in Culham” – an elitist institution that means absolutely nothing to the average British voter.

The difference in language from the two camps is staggering, and it is worth contrasting to hammer home the catastrophic communications failure from the ‘Remain’ team.  On the ‘Remain’ team, you have a professor and Chief Executive of the “JET fusion power facility in Culham” (whatever that means) talking about the importance of EU funding for British “science” – something whose importance is only understood and valued by elite academics who rarely vote.

And what did the ‘Leave’ campaign say about EU funding?  They called journalists and unveiled a big red London bus inscribed with a promise to get the money that Britain gives to the EU and pump it back into the National Health Service (NHS) that every British citizen is emotionally attached to, and therefore, cares deeply about.  “Let’s give our NHS the £350m the EU takes every week”, read the message on the bus.  It was, to my mind, the perfect demonstration of the elegance, and indeed, the devastating effectiveness of ‘simplicity’ in contemporary political communications.

However, barely a day after Britain voted for Brexit, Nigel Farage from the ‘Leave’ campaign disowned the £350m claim on the red bus and said it was a “mistake”.  Too late!  And, as we say in the trade, “communication, if misused, can give wings to lies” to fly into public consciousness.  In this case, the £350m claim had already done what it was intended to do – appeal to the deep emotions that everyone has about personal health, and the British voted in their millions to reclaim money that didn’t exist!

The ‘Remain’ team also tried (and failed) to make a big deal out of the fact that more than 1,280 Executives, including Directors from 51 FTSE 100 companies, had added their names to a letter in The Times newspaper urging British voters to support the ‘Remain’ campaign.  The trouble is that this was a time for street arguments among street boys and girls who vote with their hearts – not their heads!

In the end, there was clear post-Brexit recognition from the ‘Remain’ campaign team that they had lost the political communications battle to the Brexiters.  Former Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that “Remain sent out mixed messages.”  Alistair Campbell, the great ‘Spin Doctor’ who served as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications also agreed with his former boss when he said, “…there was a confusion about the message. David Cameron was saying one thing, Jeremy Corbyn was saying something else, and Nicola Sturgeon was saying something completely different.”

For her part, Labour Party stalwart Margaret Hodge angrily accused her party leader Jeremy Corbyn of having “…no clear message for Labour supporters.”  In the final analysis, therefore, one gets the sense that its implications for Britain’s place in the world notwithstanding, the #BrexitVote victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign was, in the end, a tragic triumph of emotive political communication over reason.

The author is a Senior Consultant at Afro-Insights Media & Communications. Twitter: @COkwir