Sometimes, I’m reminded of  how little I know. Things happen that defy what I feel and see as conventional sense and  then I have to embark on a journey that involves me reminding myself that I’m not half as smart as I think. Effectively, these things are a check inspiring me to learn more. This morning was one of such times. I had predicted that there was no way the Leave element of the British referendum could succeed as it was a campaign that flew against logic. It was built on waffle, lies and xenophobia. I assumed that when people saw a campaign being led by the likes of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage they got their cue on which side was worth their support. Considering the respected MP, Jo Cox had basically lost her life for her Remain stance- it seemed a safe bet. But then, the majority went the other way. Election days are always good for reflection so I fell on a theme that presently plagues world politics using contemporary examples. Theme being that emotion and sentiment are taking precedence in influencing decisions made by the electorate.

Last year, President Buhari emerged as the first non PDP President of Nigeria’s 4th Republic. For a man who’d lost the same election three time, it suggested that he was doing something different. Or simplistically, the incumbent was just so bad that the people had to go for someone they’d rejected three times. A  bit of both. Buhari’s campaign slogan of ‘Change’ was built for the social media age. The campaign imagery also worked a treat. Those pictures of the President in a suit and the traditional outfits of the three main ethnic groups were a hit. Rotimi Amaechi, his Campaign Manager said of that picture of Buhari in a suit “He told me he hadn’t worn one in one million years. And he hasn’t worn one since”. For someone who had been described in certain parts albeit unfairly as a “bigot”, it provided a humanity that hadn’t been seen before. That said, Buhari’s campaign offered nothing in terms of depth. There were no grand ideas to incentivize voting for him. The narratives that were encouraged varied from things like leaving the economy(which was always a point of weakness)to the whims of his carefully curated collective of technocrats to destroying Boko Haram within the first year of his inauguration and finding the Chibok girls. These are things which have been proven wrong and should not even have been taken seriously. Campaign in poetry, govern in prose. Yet, the majority voted for him because there was an emotional appeal. He tugged at our heart strings in a way he hadn’t before and we reciprocated the feeling.

The British referendum is an issue of nuanced economic policy. Since the 1975 referendum on Common Market membership – in which British voters chose to remain by 67% to 33% (42% to 58%,this time) – the idea that Britain would be best served staying out of the Union had been banished to obscurity. Then, like with all ideas driven by a romanticized past, one person mentions it and it spreads like wildfire. David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum was borne partially out of hubris and a bid to appease certain elements of his party. He believed, wrongly, that it was a battle a politician of his skill set (a first class in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford) could win. As Adrian Wooldridge points out “His strengths are the PPE-ist’s strengths: he can mug up a subject and deliver a plausible, sometimes sparkling, speech in no time. But his weaknesses are also those of the PPE-ist. His government has been a series of essay crises — policies are dashed off at high speed without any serious thought.” That captures the gift and the curse. Cameron trusted himself to deliver an argument good enough to win the referendum. The decision to hold the referendum was not thought through well enough.

Look hard enough and you’ll see that this was a campaign won  by dishonesty and xenophobia. One only has to have watched UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage squirm on live TV this morning while admitting that one of the key promises of the Leave campaign (spending £350million on the NHS) was a lie. Or Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice and one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, suggest as he did a couple of days ago that the ex footballer, John Barnes favoured Brexit- a suggestion met with a bold denial. The older the demographic, the more overwhelming the support for Brexit suggesting that the decision was made by the people most wedded to the past and least likely to be affected by the results. Another win for emotion over logic. There’s a reason Michael Gove, remarked that “the people were tired of listening to experts”. Gove’s quote encapsulates the growing belief that once you find yourself quoting experts and speaking policy, it’s a sign of the battle being lost. It was easier to stir sentiment by speaking of “taking the country back”. In a country that views itself as self importantly as the British do and its significant immigrant population, it’s easy to see why such a campaign gained traction.

As the dust settles, questions must be asked how it is that people knowingly decided to validate the politics of xenophobia. Faced with an important decision, the politics of fear won. What led to this and how can it be halted? Do we as a people have to be more circumspect in dealing with politicians and stop putting sentiment over logic? Do the media owe the public a responsibility to be objective in its analysis and call out boldfaced lies? The image of Nigel Farage speaking of independence and “taking back the country” cannot be seen as having foreshadowed Donald Trump taking an oath of office, in January. It’s all on you, America.

Key:

Michael Gove: British Tory Politician. Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath. Previously, Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and Secretary of State for Education. Now, Secretary of State for Justice. Major Campaigner for Leave.

Boris Johnson: British Tory Politician. Born in New York. MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Previously MP for Henley from 2001- 2008. Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016. Considers himself a “One-Nation Tory”. Major Campaigner for Leave. Front runner to replace Cameron.

Nigel Farage: British Politician. Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) since November 2010, and previously from September 2006 to November 2009.  Member of the European Parliament for South East England since 1999. Married to a German. Major Campaigner for Leave.

Rotimi Amaechi: Nigerian Politician. Ex Speaker, Rivers State Assembly. Ex Governor of Rivers State. Previously in the People’s Democratic Party, now in the All Progressives Congress (APC). Campaign Director, Buhari Campaign. Currently Minister of Transportation.

Jo Cox: Shot and stabbed to death on 16 June 2016. Labour Party politician. First term  Member of Parliament (MP) for Batley and Spen. Worked at Oxfam. Campaigned on Syrian Civil War. Pro Remain.

David Cameron: Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and  Leader of Conservative Party, and Member of Parliament for Witney. Won Conservative Party leadership in 2005. Became Prime Minister as the leader of a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Re-elected Prime Minister in the 2015 election. First elected as MP in 2001. Major campaigner for Remain. Announced resignation, effective from October today.

John Barnes: Former English footballer, rapper and manager of Jamaican and Trinidadian origin. Works as a commentator and pundit for ESPN and SuperSport. Played for Watford, Liverpool, Newcastle, Charlton Athletic and Celtic.

Donald Trump: American businessman, television personality, author, and politician. Presumptive nominee of the Republican Party in the 2016 presidential election. Leader of Truther campaign- Questioned Obama’s eligibility as natural born American. Heavy anti immigration slant. Favoured Brexit.

 

References

Brexit: how a fringe idea took hold of the Tory party, Matthew D’ Ancona, The Guardian, 15th June 2016

Engineers rule China Lawyers lead the US. We get bluffers and blaggers, Adrian Wooldridge, Sunday Times, 28th December 2014