How Fear Won in Britain
Today the British will answer a big question at the ballot box: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” It sounds empowering, doesn’t it? My vote could decide my nation’s destiny: Leave or Remain. But the EU referendum has served more to show everyone what an unhappy place Britain can be. We’ve seen just how arrogant and snobbish our political elite is, as well as how deranged our insurgent anti-establishment forces can be.
Look at what happened on Thursday last week, when, if reports are true, a 52-year-old neo-Nazi shot and killed Jo Cox, a young Labour MP, outside her meetings with constituents in West Yorkshire. The murder was in and of itself a horrible and shocking crime, but in the context of the EU referendum it instantly took on a monstrous significance.
That day I was having lunch with a press officer from a right-wing think tank. As news of the attack on Cox broke, we both searched our phones for more information. After no more than two minutes, she said: “This is a terrible thing to say, but if it is an Islamist attack, that would be great for Leave.” I agreed with her, but I think we both felt ashamed of ourselves. I then went back to my office to find one of our most pro-Remain staffers joyfully proclaiming that he had seen a local news image of Cox’s assailant being assaulted, and “he looks pretty pasty to me.”
Then the confirmation came in: Jo Cox had died. On social media, the carnival of public grief began—and the recriminations followed. Reports that the killer had shouted “Britain First” as he set upon Cox were taken as gospel, and it wasn’t long before politicians and journalists blamed the anti-EU Leave campaign for having stirred up hatred, often as they insisted that this was not the time for politics in the same breath, or tweet. The Leave campaigners also urged others not to “politicize a tragedy”; this was an act of senseless violence by a madman, after all. But their objections were quieted by the return argument that, had Cox been murdered by an immigrant, the Leave brigades would not have been able to resist the temptation to “weaponize”—to use the PR term—the death.
It now looks as if the killing of Jo Cox has tipped wavering voters decisively toward the Remain campaign. The pro-EU side looks all but certain to win today. Perhaps that is wrong. Perhaps Leave will surprise the pundits and pollsters by pulling off a shock victory. Or perhaps single events, however disturbing, do not really swing elections, and Remain was always bound to win. They have maintained a consistent overall advantage in the polls all year, after all.
Nevertheless, until last Thursday, momentum seemed to be with Leave, and it looked as if voters really might stick two fingers (we use two over here) to the system and decide we were better off out. The polls began to suggest a massive shift of skilled working- and middle-class voters toward Leave, despite dire warnings from the government of a financial meltdown if we dared to untether ourselves from Brussels. The Vote Leave campaign, coordinated by the much-maligned figure of Dominic Cummings, had successfully harnessed voter anger about immigration and the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. At the same time, the campaign transmitted a positive message about Britain’s future. The similarity here with the Donald Trump phenomenon is obvious—a native poor, left behind by globalization and feeling overwhelmed by immigrants, turning against the establishment and suddenly energized to make their country great again.
The Leave campaign was careful to be more politically correct than Trump. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, the two high-profile Conservatives who lead the campaign, were both denounced as “Little Englanders” in the press and on social media. But their obvious internationalism—Gove in particular is ultra-hawkish and something of a free-market zealot—rather undermined the slur.
There is no denying, however, that the less official “Grassroots Out” campaign, led by the United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, did stir up nativist resentments among the indigenous Brits—the most notorious example being a poster entitled “Breaking Point,” which showed a menacing crowd of refugees. And it is quite possible that this played some subliminal role in the murder of Jo Cox.
Still, the negativity seemed to be on the Remain side. The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign and the government offered little else but “Project Fear,” a campaign to scare voters away from Brexit by telling them house prices would plummet and unemployment would soar. They didn’t bang on too much about the shared values of all Europeans, because everybody knows the Eurozone is in great peril, and the whole European project is falling apart.
Within hours of Jo Cox being killed, however, Leave was tarred as hate-peddling and racist, and the Remainians were energized. They were the forces of tolerance and progress. The speed and cynicism with which Remain has taken advantage has been breathtaking. The PR agencies Freuds and Portland, aided by Tony Blair’s spin man Alistair Campbell, immediately took charge of handling Cox’s posthumous image, and organized a huge Remain-themed tribute evening to the dead MP in Trafalgar Square.
Again, I may be wrong. But in such circumstances it is hard to see how Leave can win. Whatever happens, the referendum has left a lot of questions unanswered.
Freddy Gray is deputy editor of The Spectator.