Divided We Brexit
The infighting over who will be the official voice of the British campaign to leave Europe isn't just about the referendum. It's about what comes afterwards.
In the months leading up to the still-as-yet-unannounced referendum on its European Union membership, Britain has seen a knock-down, bare-knuckle political death match — a contest filled with outsized personalities and vicious insults, which ultimately asks the most fundamental questions about who Britons are as a nation and who they want to be. And that’s just on the Brexit side.
For those who want to support the campaign for Britain to remain within the EU, the choice is simple: There’s only one group making that case to voters, a group called Britain Stronger in Europe (though it prefers to be called “Stronger In,” on the grounds that “BSE” is also an acronym for mad cow disease). Despite the support of Downing Street and various business leaders, it hasn’t made the strongest impression: Its own chairman forgot the name of the campaign four times in a single interview.
The jostling for who will be the official voice of the pro-Brexit side, on the other hand, appears to be just getting started — and has turned very nasty indeed.
The most prominent of the pro-Brexit groups is “Vote Leave,” launched last October and staffed by a collection of top-drawer, mainstream political operators drawn largely from the ranks of the Conservative Party. Next largest is “Leave.EU,” a rival operation set up in July by the insurance tycoon Arron Banks, a political novice until he donated 1 million pounds to the far-right, anti-immigration UKIP party in the run-up to last year’s general election. These two groups may represent the two major camps in the Brexit campaign — but the infighting has also prompted the formation of “Grassroots Out,” a group that claims to be focusing on constituency-level activism (but has so far made a mark mostly for its lamentable taste in neckwear), and “Labour Leave,” which used to be part of Vote Leave but whose members last week decided to go their own way.
Much of the coverage of this fighting so far has focused on the personal rivalries, which have admittedly been entertaining. Banks, in particular, has shown himself ready and willing to turn personal, calling Douglas Carswell — UKIP’s sole MP, who, unlike most of his party, is backing the Vote Leave campaign — “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in.” More recently, Banks revealed to the Times of London that his key aide starts every morning with unflattering impersonations of the Vote Leave high command, including its chief executive Matthew Elliott.
Why all the squabbling? Because under Britain’s electoral rules, the campaigns cannot each make their own respective cases for leaving the EU to their own audiences. Instead, a body called the Electoral Commission will designate one of them the official voice of the Brexit campaign. That status brings free TV advertising, a far higher cap on campaign spending of all kinds, and a guaranteed seat at the table for any debates that take place. The group that wins, in other words, will get to define both the case for why Britain should leave and the vision for what should come next.
The mud-slinging between Leave.EU and Vote Leave, in other words, is not just about personality clashes: It is about fundamentally different political visions. Vote Leave’s staff is largely drawn from the Conservative Party; Leave.EU emerged from UKIP. The resulting fight is not unlike the ongoing contest in the United States between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans over who will be the GOP’s nominee for president. Vote Leave sees Leave.EU members as bumbling zealots who have gate-crashed its party — and rendered its cause toxic in the process. Leave.EU sees the Vote Leavers as toffee-nosed Westminster elitists who don’t understand the concerns of ordinary decent Britons.
Even if heads can be banged together, these philosophical differences will remain. Not least because both camps are motivated by a very different idea of why Britain should leave the European Union — and what it should do once it’s out.
The best way to explain the difference between the two major camps is to look at the split between Nigel Farage, UKIP’s longtime leader, and Carswell, who, while he may be UKIP’s only MP, crucially defected from the Tories.
Farage has not officially come out for Leave.EU — his public statements have been limited to noting that he wants the two groups to get their act together — but it is clearly the Leave.EU campaign that comes closest to sharing his philosophy, with its focus on immigration controls and sovereignty. Carswell, for his part, publicly threw his support behind Vote Leave from the moment it launched, highlighting “the importance of appealing to undecided voters.”
Both men are viscerally euroskeptic — but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Farage is a classic Little Englander: His politics are about taking Britain back to the “good old days,” about shutting the door to immigrants and restoring traditional values — the sort of thing that is meat and drink to traditional right-wing voters but less appealing to those in the center. Carswell is best described as a techno-libertarian: He wants to rip apart Whitehall, embrace technological innovation, and allow Britain to make its own way in the world, free from Brussels’s meddling oversight. One fulminates about having to pay for immigrants’ HIV treatments; the other has a father who was one of the first doctors to identify the disease in African patients. One sees the EU as a monstrous superstate, bent on crushing British liberties; the other as a piece of clunky, kludgy programming running on antiquated code.
This philosophical difference reverberates throughout the Brexit campaign. I recently interviewed the leaders of both Leave.EU and Vote Leave (as well as the head of Stronger In). Banks told me he thought it was natural and desirable for the two anti-EU campaigns to join forces. After all, Leave.EU is essentially a marketing campaign, gathering hundreds of thousands of names on social media then converting them into committed grassroots supporters. Vote Leave, meanwhile, has the political expertise: Its staff are masters of the arts of policy and polling, rebuttal and strategy. One could energize core votes; the other could reach undecided voters in the middle. One could fight the ground war; the other the air campaign.
The problem is that banding together in anything but the most superficial manner would require a shared vision — and there isn’t one. Consider the vital issue of what would come after a successful Leave vote. Should Britain rebuild old institutions, or seize new opportunities? Close the borders, or open them to the world outside the EU? Restrict free movement, or promote free markets? Face inward, or look outward? Carswell, Elliott, and Dominic Cummings would tell you one thing; Farage and Banks another.
During the campaign itself, it may be possible to put this infighting to one side. Leave campaigners of all stripes insist that the referendum itself isn’t about deciding what kind of country Britain should be — it’s about making sure that British voters have the right to make that decision, not Brussels apparatchiks. And as with every campaign, the philosophy will be very much in the background: We’re more likely to see endless leaflets informing voters that they’re paying enough to the EU every week to build X new hospitals or that EU membership is worth Y to every household in the country.
But still: The Brexit referendum is fundamentally about whether or not to set the country on a new course. If Britain does vote to leave, it will necessarily trigger an entirely separate, and equally impassioned, argument about what exactly that course should be.
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