Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Remainers need to stop re-writing history

I happened to catch the Guardian's Nick Cohen yesterday blethering about Russian meddling in Brexit. Says Cohen "Leavers should be able to support Brexit and defend Britain against the machinations of a hostile foreign power. In practice they fear it would discredit the referendum result. For where would their story of national liberation be if it turned out Putin was writing the script?" I have to say I am surprised to see Cohen taking this line. I don't especially like the man but I thought he was better than this. The Brexit vote is certainly taking its toll on the nation's thinkers.

If there is a question of foreign meddling in UK affairs it is to be found after the referendum rather than during. For instance, why when the likes of Owen Paterson were arguing for remaining in the EEA did he and many others in his cohort become sudden converts to the WTO option, and how did the Brexit campaign pivot to a campaign for no deal? Here we find it's the Americans we need to be worried about, not the Ruskies.

As to events prior to the referendum, only an outsider could ever believe there was a conspiracy in play. Those of us who watched the whole thing unfold remember how utterly farcical the whole things was. Any campaign claiming to have positively influenced the outcome is flattering themselves.

I struggle to remember the date but prior to the referendum I attended a Referendum Planning Group meeting in Warwickshire. We saw from the attendance list that Arron Banks, then largely unknown to us, was sending a member of his organisation, then named The Know - which was later to become Leave.EU. We saw this as a positive as it would open up a dialogue. The meeting was well attended, packing out a medium sized conference room.

Having had a chance to mingle over lunch, I got a feel for the consensus which was that the rep from The Know, whose name escapes me, was thick as mince. Nobody was impressed. She wasn't just under-informed. She was stone stupid. It gave us a clue who we were dealing with and I can't say the organisation ever climbed in our estimations.

In the following months we saw that organisation grab the attention of the eurosceptic world. They were spending big money - namely building up an audience on social media in what was to become the space race for the official designation as the lead campaign.

The general view was that the Electoral Commission could not award the title to any organisation which didn't have Ukip on board. If you don't have Ukip then you don't have a grassroots base. As it happens, Ukip was to pivot into Grassroots Out, a campaign largely funded by Banks which would run in parallel to Leave.EU which would become the main internet presence for that side of the campaign.

In the beginning Leave.EU looked hugely promising. Until that point nobody in the euroscpetic universe had even heard of Arron Banks but it was a gift from the gods to have a millionaire donor activist come out of nowhere - especially one who understood the importance of internet presence. On the face of it, it was set to become a serious contender for the prize.

Quickly though, the organisation began to deteriorate. The Twitter content from Leave.EU was both unprofessional and utterly utterly embarrassing. I don't know what the thinking was but I'm sure it was along the lines of Breitbart style populism but executed half as well. It could only ever preach to the converted. To anybody remotely literate it was a huge turn off. Had it been the official campaign it would no doubt have lost us votes.

When it came to the official designation, Vote Leave, very much a Westminster bubble outfit, should not really have been a contender on account of it having no wider public support and that which it claimed were grassroots campaigns in support of it were very much Tufton Street sock puppet organisations. When it came to it, though, the Electoral Commission had no choice but to reject Leave.EU.

One only need look at the applications side by side to see which of the two had the administrative capability. The Leave.EU submission was sloppy and when contrasted with the ruthlessly professional Vote Leave effort there was no contest. It would not have been fair to leavers to choose Leave.EU which itself was having a schizophrenic episode as to whether it would merge with Grassroots Out.

From then on, Leave.EU abandoned any pretence of professionalism to become an utter shambles that anyone who was anybody sought to distance themselves from lest they be tainted by association. We then saw a series of embarrassing incidents, not least a Bristol public rally where the organisers hadn't bothered to get permission from the venue owner.

As the referendum crept closer, free of any obligation to put on a credible public face, Leave.EU went wildly off the rails to become probably the most useless campaigning organisation in the history of political campaigns. This was a major disappointment for those of us who did not want a Westminster-centric campaign and especially not one run by Matthew Elliott.

At that point the government had come away from Brussels with nothing to show for all the renegotiation efforts yet persisted in telling us we should stay in a "reformed EU". There was an open goal right there to exploit - yet another prime minster lying to us about Europe. The campaign should have gone into overdrive to rob Cameron of his credibility. Vote Leave, however, would not do that. It was a Tory outfit and they would never do anything to split the party.

So with an open goal not exploited and little else to run on, instead of a relevant campaign, what we got was Boris, a red bus and an indefensible claim of £350m a week for the NHS as a Brexit dividend. Even prominent leave MPs had to distance themselves form that claim and as an independent campaigner, there was nothing from that camp I could endorse. It was every bit as incompetent as Leave.EU but in more subtle ways. From that point I took the view that not only would we lose the referendum, we actually deserved to.

Referendums, however, are odd affairs. The answer often given is not necessarily the question on the ballot paper. For some it was a matter of immigration, for others a matter of sovereignty and for others an opinion poll on the establishment. In the end it was the latter factor that won the day.

As campaigning drew to a close Arron Banks's outfit had all but faded into the background and even Ukip struggled to mount an effective operation. Nigel Farage would take his battle bus to Leeds to speak to a crowd of nine. This was a campaign fought through the media where unless the the Bros bus was present the media wouldn't bother to show up. The campaign in the end turned into a Boris roadshow. Vote Leave had staked the outcome on Johnson's inexplicable popularity.

Ever since then the Remain movement have preferred to believe that Brexit was result of a gullible public falling for a demagogue running on a false prospectus and backed by shadowy influences. This is a comforting narrative for three reasons. Firstly it establishes their own intellectual and moral superiority. Secondly it can be used to delegitimise the result and best of all it absolves them from having to address their own failings. Of which there were many.

The Remain campaign had its own official organisation to mirror Vote Leave. If the leave campaigns were ineffectual then Stronger In was especially so. I struggle to remember anything it said or did. That, though, was only partially their fault. The real dispute was not between the respective campaigns but between the insurgent movement and the establishment which was comprised of the government, big business, academia and the media.

In the final days the remain movement was essentially the old establishment in panic mode. We saw all the least popular figures from John Major through to Eddie Izzard and Bob Geldof, all the while we were bombarded with ever more shrill warnings ranging from a plague of locusts to the slaughter of the firstborn. It was this, more than any other factor that scraped a win for Leave.

It should have been a bigger win for leave and had we an effective campaign operation willing to exploit the obvious open goals it could have been a landslide for leave. If anything, the grubby and disorganised nature of the leave campaign cost us votes. Farage certainly managed to alienate the ethnic minority vote.

Since then we have seen all kinds of theorising as to what happened and why and there has been a sustained hounding of Arron Banks for his questionable associations. It has become a cottage industry in some quarters, providing endless spider web conspiracy theories for Guardian hacks. They've rinsed it for all it's worth.

As it happens, though there are a die hard group who will remain convinced that Brexit is the work of shadowy Russian influences, most are not remotely interested and if there was a story it has by now jumped the shark. They would need photographic evidence of Arron Banks performing obscene acts on Vladimir Putin for anybody to take notice. Nobody is convinced that Russian Twitter bots swung it, not least since most of the country is not glued to Twitter and most of the Facebook activity was interactions between real people having real conversations. There is only so much targeted messaging can do.

All of this noise from the Guardian only really serves to flatter Arron Banks's self-image as a player and someone vastly more influential than he actually is. His many attempt to purchase Ukip have failed. His Breitbart inspired propaganda tactics failed then and now - and he has utterly failed to sow a Trumpesque insurgency. The further right Ukip travels, the further into much deserved obscurity it goes. The word Ukip is only now invoked as a scare story to whip Tories into line by whichever faction for whatever purpose.

In fact, the collapse of politics as we know it since the referendum tells its own story. If compelling evidence of foreign meddling did exist we could simply sweep the referendum under the carpet like it never happened. But something did happen and it exposed deep and irreconcilable divides in the country that our politics is no longer equipped to cope with. If only it were so convenient that it was simply an electoral blip caused by Russian scheming. That would remove all of the difficult questions and absolve the establishment of any blame.

As much as Brexit has opened the door to opportunities to reform and revitalise politics, demanding more of our institutions and bringing into question long settled policies in need of overhaul, it also shines a torch on what isn't working, shows us who our true allies really are and it shows especially who certain interests in the Tory party are really working for. With or without Brexit, there have been US interests stalking British politics and we were always going to have to fight the economic radical wing of the Conservative Party. There is no sweeping that under the rug.

These are all questions that demand our attention the most. The Tories would have us believe that the US are our closest allies and the prime candidate for a free trade deal, but in multilateral affairs we can see the US is no friend of Britain and will do us no favours. In trade affairs it's America first and always and that policy does not change regardless of who is in the White House.

If there is a threat to Britain it comes not from Russia, rather it comes from a fifth column deep in the Conservative Party masquerading as Brexiters acting on behalf of US corporate interests. Though Brexit is very much an act of national liberation it also opens us up to threats from these such predators. I am sure the Tories are delighted that Arron Banks is proving to be such a useful decoy.

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