Disbelief and anger – just two of the emotions on show following an unforgettable referendum campaign which resulted in the UK electing to leave the European Union.
Remainers and mainstream media like the BBC and Sky News were only too quick to paint a picture of a divided ‘Little Britain’ – an island of hopeless bigots unleashed on the rest of the nation as soon as this historic result was announced. Newspapers talked of a ‘frenzy of hatred’ whilst Government-funded Tell MAMA – which records anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK – was thrust into the spotlight once more to perpetuate the myth that Brexit had given leave voters free rein to reveal their true colours. Everyday abuse vented in the other direction – much of it discriminatory against the elderly – went, naturally, unrecorded and unreported.
Rather like the different stages of a particularly bad break up, these emotions slowly morphed into bitterness and ridicule as the initial shock subsided and the out-of-touch metropolitan class realised they needed more than just anger and disbelief. So then came the ridicule, and we mean waves of the stuff.
“What does Brexit actually mean?”, “You don’t even have a plan?”, “Why don’t you know what the red lines are?”, “What deal are you even expecting to secure?”, “Leave voters didn’t vote for this chaos and uncertainty” we are told again, and again, and again. Everybody from the Guardian to the Derry Journal (no, we don’t know who they are either) ran with stories about the lack of a plan and Prime Minister Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” sound bite was mocked by all and sundry.
Prior to this Nigel Farage had been castigated as a liar over the £350m NHS funding pledge despite it coming from a rival campaign, Vote Leave were criticised for closing their social media accounts despite the referendum being over and Boris Johnson was mocked for being, well, Boris Johnson.
But like a very clever diversionary tactic there is one important absentee in much of this incessant ridicule. The root cause of many of these arguments is omitted: David Cameron. How can a man who served as Prime Minister for close to six years seemingly drop off the face of the planet simply by quitting his role? How can a man go from such intense public scrutiny to none in a matter of days?
You see it was Mr Cameron who stood at the dispatch box on 16th June 2015 – during the passage of the legislation – and declared that the Government, his Government, wasn’t going to be a lead campaigner in the referendum. A very wise and sensible choice too, David. After all, a decision of this magnitude needed a responsible Government to set out both sides of the argument in as transparent a way as possible. What the country both needed and desired was grown up debate where funding and resources were equal and where people knew exactly what was on the table.
Sadly Cameron failed to take his own advice and his declaration in Parliament turned out to be another empty promise at best, a lie at worst. The then Prime Minister failed in his duty to deliver a fair referendum and what followed was a campaign often characterised by its bitterness, tribalism and nastiness where even the horrific murder of Jo Cox MP was politicised to win additional votes. This one, gross miscalculation meant every sinew of the civil service’s work went into delivering a Remain victory.
Whether it was the £9m of taxpayers’ cash spent on a glossy propaganda leaflet delivered to every home in Britain or Sir Jeremy Heywood circulating a memo to the civil service reiterating that briefs and speeches could only be written for pro-EU politicians, the referendum quickly descended into farce on Cameron’s watch. Draw up a plan for leaving? Don’t be silly – such a proposition didn’t even enter Cameron’s mind.
And, as such, voters based their decisions on what was on the table. It was made explicitly clear during the campaign period that what leaving specifically looked like would be subject to negotiations if it actually happened. Various existing models were discussed such as Norway, Switzerland and Canada while Boris constantly reiterated that any deal would be a uniquely British one.
But let’s be honest here. Very few people, even many leave campaigners, believed they would actually win. And nobody that voted leave did so thinking it would be an easy ride – on the contrary, even leave economists accepted there would be a period of uncertainty and possible struggle in the short to medium term. People weighed up the possible negatives short-term against the obvious benefits long-term and came to a conclusion. Remainers conveniently forget this. Just like they also forget that it was up to Remain’s biggest cheerleader, Cameron, to provide specifics about any deal on leaving the EU. He resoundingly failed to do this.
For what it’s worth, Vote Leave did set out a roadmap for the UK post-Brexit which included a string of legislation changes designed to set the country on its new path. Measures such as curbing the power of EU courts and acting to end the automatic right of all EU citizens to enter the UK were all laid bare for voters to make up their minds on. The fact remained however that Vote Leave were not in Government and had no power to act on such promises.
The result materialised on June 24th and Cameron instantly portrayed himself as the dignified statesman stepping aside to let someone that-way-inclined take on the challenge. Such is Cameron’s unerring charm and finesse in front of the cameras, it was a narrative bought into by many. In reality Cameron was a bitter man – a classic career politician – who knew he had put all his eggs in one basket and looked extremely daft for doing so. He realised that his underhand tactics had actually worked against him and, in one final act of defiance, Cameron resigned in a move he knew would create maximum panic and further disrupt the world markets. A responsible leader would have steadied the ship and started to heal wounds – recognising the public vote and acting upon it as Prime Minister. But walking away after his irresponsible handling of the referendum was the easy option – the cowardly way out. His record will forever be tainted by it.
Bringing a civil service which campaigned against Brexit back under control and righting the wrongs of Cameron’s failed legacy by putting together a team which will negotiate our exit is a job which has been left to May’s Government and it is not an easy one. Negotiations are likely to be long and complex. She deserves credit, at least, for now naming a date for invoking Article 50. But just remember the next time you are mocked, ridiculed or chastised for being a leave voter without a plan, kindly remind them that it’s one of their own with the most questions to answer.
Standing up for those without a voice in Britain