Sean Mahoney on the Farage appeal, the Brexit chaos and the cirumlocution offices of the modern age.
Owen Bennet, The Brexit Club: The Inside Story of the Leave Campaign’s Shock Victory (Biteback Publishing,2016) 352pp.
Future generations will have the benefit of knowing how Brexit pans out. For those living through what may be one of Britain’s major political schisms, its far from clear. A Brexit Government, led by a Prime Minister who campaigned for Remain, seems intent on throwing more confusion into the political landscape. The Ministry for Exiting the European Union seems a cross between Charles Dickens’ Circumlocution Office and Monty Python’s Silly Walks. None of this chaos should have been a surprise.
The first wave of instant histories has already been published. Many of these are “insiders” accounts. Often, they are essentially a self-justification narrative and with this motivation, both the winners and losers have been quick to press. Owen Bennet has followed Nigel Farage over the last few years and offers what is at times, even if not intentionally, a sympathetic Farage–centric view of the Brexit campaign. It is, however, his landscape of the civil war between many of the groups and personalities that comprised the “out” campaign which makes one wonder how on earth they convinced anyone of anything. Even allowing for a journalistic slant on the story, it is no surprise the Leave campaign had no post-referendum plan. In fact, they never had a cohesive plan for the pre-referendum stage.
The character list is long and seems to get out of hand quickly. No two characters really like each other. though they often tolerate each other in the short term. An example” Nigel (Farage) doesn’t think Douglas (Carswell) likes him, though Douglas is UKIP’s only MP and seems to deny not liking Nigel, but would prefer to communicate with his leader through the national media. Nigel is not liked by a range of characters who would rather he stayed away from the Campaign. Nigel doesn’t like posh Tories. Dominic (Cummings) and Matthew (Elliot) are the brains behind Vote Leave. Not many people like them. Aaron (Banks) dislikes them. That said, Aaron dislikes everyone and clearly doesn’t mind telling people this character defining trait, generally in a rather crude manner and is disliked in turn by everyone else. He does though have the necessary qualities to bankroll the GO campaign. George (Galloway) appears and disappears all in one day, but no one except Nigel really cares for him. Nigel has a problem with not being liked by Nigel (Lawson) and the Nigel’s again like to disagree through Radio 4 and the Daily Telegraph. Boris and Michael decide to join in and like each other intently, until they fall out. Gawain, Nigel’s Pressman, likes expletives, but very little else.
The battle between Vote Leave and Go/ Leave EU to receive the official designation for the leave campaign covers the major part of this book. The Brexit club alluded to doesn’t exist. Vote Leave, who were ultimately successful in gaining the designation try to run a campaign without Farage, Banks and the collective entourage. Vote Leave became the official campaign and Farage was excommunicated. Banks considers suing to get the decision overturned, but seems to oversleep his own self imposed deadline. Vote Leave had earlier refused to sit in a Treasury Select Committee hearing if Leave EU were also in the room. At this point someone should have noted that the ability for these groups to work together was not a convincing argument for any kind of unifying.
UKIP then run the Purple Bus campaign. Driving around the Country stopping at various pubs while Nigel has an “Ale “(Bennet uses this phrase many times and I have not heard it for about 30 years!) waving his European Community Passport in the air (he doesn’t like it), then back onto the bus. The campaign, Bennet informs us, was based on the classic comedy drama “Cool Runnings” about the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
For around 9 months “the Club’ were told by anyone within earshot that the claim that the UK sent $350 million a week to the EU was wrong. However, it remained as the headline claim, money available for all our future needs, until the 24th of June when it quickly vanished. The book shows how the internal demand to not use this figure were continually ignored by the Cummings and Elliot. Cummings and Elliot then express horror as the campaigns turn to Immigration. No one on the Leave side understood whether “Turkey was a threat” or not, and no one knew why a map of Iraq was used to illustrate European expansion. No one, it seems, knew that Farage was going to release a poster showing migrants crossing a land border, swamping Britain.
The campaign itself comes across as nothing more than light entertainment. There are intense battles to hold a music concert. Quite what message 3/8ths of Bucks Fizz and one drifter would have got across is not clear, though it would probably have been just as illuminating as Bob Geldof swearing at fishermen on the Thames (a great title for any future Brexit book). Boris Johnson gets into more photo opportunities than a man should allow himself even if it means auctioning a cow. Some of the large scale arena debates make you wonder what we did for entertainment before Brexit?
The result of the referendum seemed to catch “the Brexit club” off guard. Perhaps that’s because, as this book interestingly shows, the members of this club never worked together at all. It also explains why Michael Gove went to bed at 10.30. Imagine what might have happened if they had worked together? Of course we know the result – but we still await the verdict. As yet, 8 year olds are still not allowed to blow up balloons, teabags remain used only once, we still bury people in standardised euro-coffins, Mumbai mix is on the shelves, and bananas are straight. Brexit still means Brexit…for now. At the same time, somewhere in Britain there is a woman with a tattoo of Nigel Farage. Bennett doesn’t give us many more details, its probably for the best.
Sean Mahoney lives in New Zealand. He has attempted a range of projects and careers, all with limited success. He has published writing on a wide range of things from the Agrarian Socialist Thomas Spence to the England Cricket teams disastrous 1986 tour of the West Indies. His political and cultural analysis can be found here.