Unleashing Demons

Issue section: 

It is alleged in some quarters that we are seeing “buyer’s remorse” in the UK over the referendum decision to leave the EU. This reviewer has not felt it and the polls do not seem to support it, but Tony Blair, no less, is threatening to return on the back of it.

There is undoubtedly a more widely held perception that it is somehow more progressive to support the EU than to oppose it. This book, unintentionally, goes some way towards dispelling that particular myth.

Craig Oliver was David Cameron’s director of communications and a leading figure in the Remain campaign. He offers an inside view of events, showing the individuals involved and the ideas that motivated them. This should make for fascinating reading, but mostly it doesn’t.

What we get in the main is a protracted justification of the disastrous strategy that lost. Cameron (always “DC” or “the PM” here — far too busy for names) never puts a foot wrong in this version of events. Instead he is let down by those around him, the leadership of the Labour Party and, with no sense of irony, the “right wing press”.

Cameron’s former friends get off lightly too. Michael Gove comes in for some criticism but Boris Johnson is largely let off. This is a reflection of the campaign, where a decision was made to leave these two alone in the interests of Tory unity. Disgracefully, Oliver reports that Labour figures in Remain also went along with this strategy. Leading Blairites are shown to have far more in common with the Tories running the campaign than they do with their own party.

And yet there was no happy ending for Cameron. This is where Oliver comes unstuck for an explanation. For him, all the experts were on the Remain side and it came down to “the economy against immigration”. This is clearly far too simplistic. The Remain campaign was dominated by government ministers, along with business leaders and discredited political figures from the past. This enabled the Leave side, despite having a similar composition at the top, to portray itself as standing up to “the establishment”.

It would be naive to say that racism and hostility to migrants did not play a part in the vote. However, two points should be made. The first is that it is just dishonest to suggest that race was the only, or even the main factor for voting to leave. Research conducted after the vote showed that jobs, wages and social cohesion were all significant.

The second point is that the Remain campaign approached the immigration issue in much the same way. In this climate, the danger is that blaming migrants can become a simple catch-all solution for a multitude of problems. There is definitely a need for a serious analysis of why the UK voted to leave the EU. This isn’t it.