It’s been five years since the UK’s Brexit vote. The vote appalled those who saw it as economic self-sabotage. But those in favour of leaving were not swayed by economic arguments — and likely still aren’t today.
It was 4 a.m, on June 24, 2016 and the midsummer sun was just beginning to light up the London sky. Nigel Farage, then-leader of the UK Independence Party and a decadeslong “Leave” evangelist, emerged to enrapture his supporters with the words: “Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom!”
The referendum results, pouring in from across the country, were beginning to show an undeniable trend: After 43 years, Britain had decided to leave the European Union.
“We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit,” said Farage.
He chose to cast the moment of triumph in terms of the little guy taking on the world of high finance, and winning. Some thought this was a curious way to frame a vote on EU membership, but it was a telling insight into the terms upon which his side had conducted the campaign.
The economy, stupid? Not really
The referendum had been remarkable for how dramatically different the Leave and Remain camps had approached the campaign.
The Remain side had been almost entirely focused on economic arguments; warning about the economic damage of Brexit, often drawing on the work of international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund to make its point.
Even US President Barack Obama visited London two months before the vote to issue some dire warnings. “The UK is going to be in the back of the queue,” the former president warned about Britain’s post-Brexit prospects of striking a trade deal with the US.
The tide of expertise about the economy was having the opposite effect to the one intended by the Remain side. Indeed, one of the most famous and prescient quotes of the entire campaign came when the conservative politician and Leave advocate Michael Gove said: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.”
In fact, the Leave side, barely mentioned the economy in its official messaging. Its campaign, led by political strategist Dominic Cummings, was based around one central slogan: “Take Back Control.” It was a simple but seductive message that could be applied to anything.
For more from The Mint on Brexit-related issues, read our roundtable on how some economists thought Brexit would pan out.