Why playing the man and not the issue might not be a good strategy for LEAVE

Why playing the man and not the issue might not be a good strategy for LEAVE

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Alastair Meeks has doubts about the BREXIT campaign approach

Brexiteers have shown themselves to be very angry about many things.  These things include, but are not confined to, the conduct of the referendum campaign itself.  Their complaints are many and various but three in particular stand out: first, the In campaign is almost exclusively trying to scare floating voters into the status quo (“Project Fear” as it is often called); secondly, the Prime Minister has loaded the deck against them by chicanery; and thirdly, the In crowd are arguing by appeals to authority, projecting itself as the sensible choice espoused by sensible people without ever explaining why.

These complaints have varying degrees of merit.  Leave have responded to them in a quite unconventional manner.  In particular, when presented with an argument from the Remain camp, its default is to play the man.

When George Osborne unveiled the Treasury assessment of the risks of leaving the EU, John Redwood’s response was: “The prime minister was one of the senior advisers working in the Treasury while John Major’s government tried to keep this country in the EU’s disastrous exchange rate mechanism. The ERM destroyed jobs and caused misery for families across the country. The remainers were wrong then, and they are wrong now – people should not trust their judgment on the EU.”

When Barack Obama’s intervention in the debate was mooted, Nigel Farage described him as the most anti-British president that there had ever been, evidently forgetting that several had actually fought wars against the British.  Countless economic arguments from varied sources supportive of the Remain camp have been dismissed by Leavers on the ground that the proponent had supported Britain’s entry into the Euro, whether or not this was in fact true.  Interventions from Lord Mandelson are dismissed with the riposte that he has to be supportive of the EU or his pension is in peril (a proposition that is daft on at least two levels, but chiefly because it implies that Lord Mandelson doesn’t believe what he is saying).

Ad hominem attacks are nothing new of course.  But the speed with which Leavers have been reaching for them is noteworthy.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a conscious strategy.  This begs the question: why?

It is often said that ad hominem attacks are a sign that someone has lost the argument.  That may be part of it in some of these cases.  But there seems to be more to it than that.  Leave seems to have recognised that they can never win the campaign if it is fought on the gravitas of the proponents.  So instead they are seeking to use their opponents’ establishment status against them, like a judoka using his opponent’s weight against him.  Making a virtue of necessity, they are advertising their anti-establishment status and seeking to lead a peasants’ revolt.

Will it work?  It will certainly damage the credibility of those who they attack when the attack lines have substance.  However, the public may well notice the rather shrill tone that such attacks are inevitably conveyed in and draw their own conclusions about their authors.  Leave might successfully neutralise the imbalance in authority only to cement a perceived imbalance in judgement.

It will also damage the relationships with those who have been attacked.  Leave want to pursue new trade relationships with non-EU countries.  This task would not be made easier where their leading spokespeople have made direct personal attacks on their leaders.  Conservative Leavers will at some point want to patch things up with Conservative Remainers and this will be far harder when they have hurled vitriol at each other.  These, however, would be post-referendum problems.

For this approach ultimately to work, the Leave campaign will need to persuade the public that Britain has been led badly and that as a result for the average person in the street things have got or will get worse unless a new direction is taken.  The public are always Eeyorish about life in general in opinion polls, but will they accept that their leaders have been so incompetent as to require a completely fresh start?  I guess we shall see.

Alastair Meeks

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