A crowded Wembley arena. Bright lights. Huge crowds. Five contestants pitted against each other with nothing but their verbal skills to eliminate all opposition. One outright victor. A standing ovation. Thunderous applause. Tears in the eyes. It was beautiful. It was heroic. It was emotional. An epic tale to be told to future generations.
For many others, myself included, it was like watching a hammer house of horrors. Hitler’s ghost streaming live into the nation’s living rooms from London. Britain’s imagined order of a peaceful, tolerant nation based on an age of reason, pluralism and the rule of law collapsing in front of my eyes. Those who applauded the loudest in the Wembley arena had no idea that their chosen victor, one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, was not emoting with them. Alexander Boris Johnson no more believes in Independence-day, Brexit-day or taking back control than he believes in Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks or a Fairy God Mother. That is not the point. The point is that Alexander Boris Johnson believes in his own power to narrate fabulous sagas of epic proportions – tales of oppression, people without a voice, fighting for freedom, fighting to regain control, saving billions of pounds for Britain’s public services but also a tale of hope and confidence that only he can lead the oppressed out of the valley of darkness towards a sunlit future. The narrative was false but the truth be damned as far as Johnson is concerned.
The ethics aside it is a winning strategy and to Alexander Boris Johnson winning is everything. There is no doubt that Johnson knowingly lied, swindled, conned, cheated and fibbed his way to victory. Johnson is no red-eyed gullible looney. He is extremely calculated. One day he and his sycophantic side-kick chums such as Gove and Rees-Mogg will be held to account for the fraud they perpetuated on our country but in the meantime for those of us who make no apologies for looking to reverse this fraud the most important thing to remember is that Vote Leave won the narrative and we did not.
Everyone agrees that the “Stronger IN” campaign was a disaster from beginning to end. Stronger IN could have won the 2016 Referendum, no sweat, but played their hand so badly Vote Leave must have been amazed Cameron was making it so easy for them. By focusing on facts, figures and risk without a credible EU narrative to back it up Cameron managed to turn everyone off – especially the wavering, undecided voter who could have swung it in favour of Remain. (To see in more detail just how powerful Vote Leave’s narrative was see my piece below “Tripping the Mind Fantastic: Imagined Orders)
Yet to this day those who are horrified by Vote Leave’s victory – and I count myself as one of them – still fail to grasp just how successful Vote Leave’s narrative was and still is. Many of us are still stuck in the Cameron-era of arguing on facts with no narrative to back them up. The only way we Remainers can regain the initiative, ensure Remain is an option on a future People’s Vote and win a decisive victory over pro-Brexit forces is to get in on the act and copy Vote Leave’s winning formula. No – I’m not suggesting for a single moment Remainers need to lie, cheat or fib. What I am suggesting is that we can and we must create a better narrative than that of Vote Leave and Nigel Farage. We must devise a positive, upbeat message not a message of “look back in anger” … and the really exciting, good news is that our narrative need not be false and fraudulent but honest and truthful.
Remainers fall for Vote Leave’s trap of getting bogged down in the dry, narrative desert of detail that no one understands or cares about. The Brexiter, on the other hand, has consistently stuck to the same script since 2016: “Take back Control”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “EU tyranny”, “sneering elites” and “hope in brighter, better future”.
When a well-meaning Remainer (who is lucky enough to be asked onto a Breakfast show) starts patiently explaining why WTO tariffs would be bad for the UK the economic quack wheeled in by the BBC to give “balance” rattles on about how others survive perfectly well outside of the EU on WTO terms. When a Remainer tries to explain the importance of supply chains a Steve Bannon funded think-tank appointee will rattle on about how Switzerland is the richest country in the world. When a Remainer is asked about the Northern Irish border an economic quack will repeat “Norway isn’t in th EU and they do fine”. When Remainers try, for the umpteenth time, to explain that democracy does not stand still and we have the right to change our minds a Faragist will claim Remainers are a sneering bunch of metropolitan elites that look down on “the little people” and don’t understand the meaning of democracy.
We Remainers shake our head in frustration when the obvious swindle of Vote Leave’s promises are brushed aside by avid leavers as of little or no consequence. We stutter in disbelief that voters – especially moderate voters – just want the government to “get on with it” even as Jaguar closes down production lines and House of Fraser go into administration. We simply cannot understand how middle England appears to shrug their shoulders at Vote Leave’s illegal over-spend and links to Putin’s Russia.
Brexiter arguments, we all know, are spurious – even fraudulent – but con-men have always been convincing rogues; good on optimism, short on detail and very, very persuasive. It is tempting to call leavers “stupid”, “dumb” and “ignorant” but every time we do so we score an open goal. Vote Leave’s narrative has an in-built mechanism to portray us as sneering, intellectual snobs. Everytime we call them “stupid” or “gammon” or “idiots” we just confirm Vote Leave’s slanderous prejudice. What matters now is not whether a leave voter has the IQ of Einstein or not (and as an aside I know plenty of highly intelligent, well-educated and perfectly pleasant, charming people who still frimly believe in Brexit). What matters is changing people’s minds before a People’s Vote so that we can reverse the fraudulent referendum of 2016.
Best for Britain have done an amazing job at highlighting how the country is beginning to turn cold on Brexit. Their strategy of targeting MPs to highlight that Brexit is not necessarily the “will of the people” is very clever. They are right to target the Labour Conference and get Labour to back a People’s Vote. They have succeeded in showing that up to 59% of people would now vote to remain, which is more than encouraging. Yet a Remain victory is not in the bag. A People’s Vote survey also found that whilst 86% of Daily Mail readers are pessimistic about Brexit and not convinced that the UK will get a good deal two-thirds are nevertheless still in favour of leaving the EU.
We Remainers clearly still have a long way to go. This is because a leaver’s hearts is still beating to Alexander Boris Johnson’s fabulous narrative from 2016 – and to be fair on them its not as if we Remainers have given them a beautiful alternative to tune into. If there is to be a People’s Vote – and many of us are marching, lobbying and agitating for one then this time round we must do a better job than Cameron did last time. After all, if there is to be a People’s Vote Remain must win more than 60% of the vote. Preferably 67% as we did in 1974. That is the only way Brexit can be kicked into the long grass for good where it can be submerged in bind-weed and never see the light of day again.
But how? What is going to push us over the 60% margin for a decisive victory?
By changing our narrative.
It is time for us Remainers to wise-up and become a bit more savvy about how to win a nation’s heart and not just their minds. Forget the hard-core, die-in-the-wool leavers for whom leaving has become an evangelical mission of biblical proportions. They are never going to change their minds or their hearts so why even bother? It is the wavering, middle-of-the-road voter we must target. The one whose minds is already beginning to fathom the sheer idiocy of Brexit but whose heart still tells them that it is important for freedom, democracy and sovereignty that we leave.
It is not enough to tell them that it is in our economic interests to stay in the EU – even though that is a given. It is not enough to scare them with the alternative – even though May’s hard Brexit option is certainly giving dithering voters pause for thought. It is not enough to repeat the same facts that were aired in 2016 – even though it is always good to have them out there to show that Remainers do not cheat. What we do need to do, however, to win a decisive not marginal victory is to offer the long-suffering voter hope and optimism about remaining in the European Union. Make them feel as though they are opting into something positive, fun, joyous and full of exciting possibilities not opting into something because “it is good for you” and “faceless experts” tell us we must. No one ever ate a boiled, mushy Brussels-sprout because they were told “it is good for them”.
Let us give our narrative some savoury substance and pleasant texture. Let us give the voter a bit of a tear in the eye about why the EU is such a great thing to be a part of. We must talk up the EU’s democratic credentials, it’s efforts of fostering peace and unity, its desire to support and nurture our individual identities, cultures and histories, its objective of erasing poverty through social funding and cohesion funding. There is so much positive to narrate – now is a good time to start thinking about how we can get this message across in a way that makes the voter feel proud to be a part of the European Union not fearful of it. Ancestry.com did an excellent up-lifting advert – let us imitate this winning formula and start thinking now about how we can portray the EU as a fun, open, tolerant, democratic and freedom-loving body. I truly hope that Best for Britain and other funded Remain organisations are already working with some of the nation’s most creative talent to do just that.
Cameron’s failure to create a positive, upbeat narrative about the EU in 2016 back-footed Remainers and has left us scrambling to play catch-up over the past two years. Time to reverse this strategy. Let the Brexiters chew on the detail of trying to square the circle. That is not our job. It is theirs. Let us instead talk the narrative of hope, opportunity and peace of mind. Once a People’s Vote has been won we can reflect on how to hold the fraudsters of Brexit to account. In the meantime, let us not be bitter, angry or vitriolic at those who voted in good faith to leave the EU. Let us not fall for the trap of getting bogged down in a detailed narrative desert of WTO tariff rates, standardisation or qualified majority voting in the Council. Let us keep our eyes on the prize and begin now to construct an honest, positive, optimistic and joyful narrative of the many, many benefits of staying in an open, tolerant, democratic and rules-based European Union.
… and remember not all is lost. Despite Alexander Boris Johnson’s best efforts no one is calling 24 June 2016 Independence Day just yet.