These are my current thoughts on a book I’m currently reading about the 2016 UK Brexit referendum – All out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class
So, this book describes actions without giving value judgements other than those attributed to sources. So from my perspective, I might describe the actions and possibly the character of the main actors in the story as thus:
Remain / In
Well-meaning but naïve. Was hamstrung by an inability to get any kind of substantive deal (from the perspective of the public) from the EU on immigration initially. Made a huge mistake in underestimating the feelings of a good deal of the population towards immigration and the EU. Thought he could take the deal he’d salvaged on denying benefits to EU citizens (until they’d worked for 4 years here) home to the UK and people would be OK with it when in fact, they wanted their government to have full comtrol over their borders. Cameron wanted to shore up his party and shut up what he felt was a toxic minority of Tory eurosceptics (and a small handful of Labour).
He came across as an open, liberal, progressive realist that rarely let the demands of the campaign influence what he thought was wider good governance and diplomacy. Basically, nice and pragmatic but ultimately not a cynical and calculated enough operator. Led a campaign focused too much on instilling (Project) Fear as opposed to distilling the positive messages that could have been disseminated regarding EU membership though this flaw in the campaign was more directly attributed to others.
Another open, liberal, progressive Tory. These lads are more Lib Dems than your traditional view on Tories. Knew from the beginning that the referendum was a terrible idea and it would very possibly scupper his opportunity to take over as PM afterwards. Threw the notion of getting the top job under the bus as a final gambit to try and secure EU membership by threatening a punishment Budget after a Leave vote. Perceived as demonstrating a commitment to the EU ideal stronger than his career aspirations. Comes across as very smart, very shrewd, and utterly wasted.
Seamus Milne and John McDonnell
Milne is the ‘thin man’ strategist that would consistently doctor press releases and speeches to omit key campaign phrases to the detriment of the core message. Rarely if ever attended strategy meetings and along with McDonnell decided to actually change the message of the Labour In campaign to Remain and Reform, undermining the overall Remain campaign which was trying to either focus on the benefits of remaining in the EU or describing the disastrous fallout of leaving.
It was described by one source how certain intellectuals never want to see to be going along with others they felt were their intellectual inferiors, so they would change something to look smart. That’s giving them the benefit of the doubt on that one. The other perspective is that it was another of their ploys to sabotage the campaign. 50% of Labour voters didn’t vote and 50% of those voters didn’t know what the party officially stood for with the EU.
Milne and McDonnell seemed to ‘handle’ Corbyn with a number of anecdotes describing how Corbyn would make tea and defer to Milne on what his own thoughts were and try and hurry campaign meetings on so McDonnell could make a speech about something unrelated to Brexit.
At best not bothered, at worst completely complicit in the strategy of Milne and McDonnell or even just managed by them completely. I think he was complicit. I don’t think he’s a moron but I do get the impression he’s heavily influenced by the other two.
Corbyn apparently initially was forced into allowing the Party to officially be in favour of the UK remaining within the EU and beginning the ‘Labour In’ campaign because senior Labour MPs said that this was their condition for being a part of his shadow cabinet. Members like Hillary Benn, Yvette Cooper, and Tom Watson. Thereafter, he began to do…. well, nothing. And if he did do anything it was obstructionist and difficult. Corbyn never shared a platform or was seen with any Tories (until Jo Cox was murdered) nor would he share a stage with Gordon Brown or Tony Blair to demonstrate a united front.
In fact, on the orders of Milne, a press release was changed from Labour being ‘united’ to Labour being ‘overwhelmingly’ in favour of remaining in the EU. This seemed to be a pattern from Milne of setting the hard left away from the centrists. Far from being a party that was racked by the centrist attitude of not wanting Corbyn, it was one that both sides didn’t want each other. Whether it was the chicken or the egg in regards to which one came first, the behaviour and actions of Corbyn, Milne, and McDonnell in this particular campaign would indicate that they do not do what the party as a whole decide they want to do, they will do whatever they want.
Ultimately, it’s felt that Corbyn et al. saw this all as a win win. If Remain won, he’d be seen as the guy that was in charge of Labour when this came to pass, and were they to lose, well, that’s what they wanted anyway and I think that Milne, who seems quite the Machiavellian character, might have predicted would cause a leftist backlash that the hard left could take advantage of.
It’s been commented on since how different Corbyn was in the Labour leadership campaign and in the general election to that which we saw in the referendum. The Labour Party membership and Momentum were not utilised, not mobilised.
The Corbyn faction then had the idea to go to Turkey, meet refugees there, and make a speech on opening borders. It was described by one source as an idea that it would be difficult to beat in terms of it being the worst possible thing to do. I assume that other Labour MPs shut this down as the notion of Turkey joining the EU and the current refugee crisis at the time were political kryptonite to the Remain campaign.
Well, it was either crass stupidity or a far more overt tactic to sabotage the campaign from within. It was signed off by Milne. They had the idea, they were going to do it. And then they didn’t. Maybe it was one step too obvious.
Pretty anonymous bunch really. Remainers were disgusted by Corbyn’s faction’s actions but also thought the rest of Labour didn’t turn up. The Labour In leader was Allan Johnson who’s a solid politician but when he was turning up in places on the Labour Battle Bus (which McDonnell wouldn’t get on, calling it ‘too Blairite’), he would give speeches to which people would just respond with ‘well, those are his thoughts’ because without Corbyn backing up what Labour In were saying, these were personal feelings of MPs as opposed to a party’s official position. Corbyn’s speeches on the other hand were a litany of complaints about the EU and the message that was asked of him to communicate, ‘That’s why I’m for the EU and we should Remain’ was left unsaid. Corbyn would say that this was the position of his party he was putting forward that they should remain and try and reform. And in the light of the widely publicised failure of Cameron to reform the EU only a couple of months prior, this had the opposite effect.
Labour in general was in a terrible state, however, as mentioned and this was all fuelling the divisions therein. Labour seemed more focused on their internal existential and ideological crises than on this supposed crises of state. They were too worried about who might lead the people to actually lead the people.
Leave / Out
Was in direct competition with Osborne for the PM job and is assumed to have taken the gamble to jump on the Leave bandwagon to rise out of a win as the man to take over from Cameron who’d have to go. Comes across as very indecisive but a hugely handy weapon due to his massive, massive popularity across the country. According to research, no one seemed to mind his gaffs because it was him doing them. Would have happily smashed through a wall into No. 10 like an oblivious Mr Bean in a car with no break fluid.
The very bright performing monkey of the Old Etonian Tories that had come from a very meager background to walk the corridors of power. Decided to fuck the Blue Bloods over and follow his old Oxford mate Johnson over to the Leave campaign. Probably a career move on his part as well. He seems very enigmatic. Very interesting. Not got yet to his ultimate betrayal on Johnson after the campaign.
Left off the official Remain ticket much to his chagrin, he nonetheless rambled around the country like a landed gentry hooligan. Was at least indirectly responsible for one of the greatest PR coups of the campaign. He organised for a load of fisherman to congregate and sail up the Thames with messages regarding reclaiming UK fisheries. But he was met with Bob Geldof and a load of other celebs and Remain supporters on their own boats. Geldof shouted abuse at Farage while the rest of them threw vicks at the fishermen (who are widely seen as poor, working class, and some of the people that have certainly lost out due to globalisation). Farrage did always have one thing right though, make it about immigration and Leave will win.
He was the Leave campaign’s chief strategist. He was pretty much the boss. Cummings is basically one of those guys in The West Wing who’s brilliant and actually makes all the decisions that the representatives are credited with. He’s a political analyst. Hardly anyone has heard of him. He writes a lot about education. Wants to apply meritocratic and technological principles to making the UK wicked at making people learn.
He said talk about immigration. Talk about Turkey. And we’ll win.
He got everything right.