Anti-intellectualism vs. guilt by association: The story of two Brexit campaigns.

By Katy Glynn
08/04/2020 • 05:05 AM EST


Euroscepticism has long been a part of British politics and since its tentative entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, the UK has long been known as Europe’s ‘awkward partner’.[1] What started in the late 90’s as a steady rise in popularity of the UK’s Independence party (UKIP), eventually forced Prime Minister David Cameron to call a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU. In February 2016, the country rapidly divided itself into two camps, Remain or Leave, the whistle was blown, and the campaigns were off.

In an attempt to distance themselves from the ‘fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists’[2] of Nigel Farage’s Independence Party, the Leave camp disassociated itself from UKIP, and for most of the campaign did not touch on the issue of immigration. Their raison d‘être was to convince the British public that the EU was a sovereignty-sucking, money-hungry institution that served little benefit to the UK. This meant attacking the reliability of the scores of experts, including top economists and academics, who supported the argument to ‘remain.’

To take on the barrage of facts, figures, and professional opinions coming from the Remain camp, Vote Leave labeledsee definition - pigeon-holing a person or group into a simple category and assigning names and/or beliefs to that category.
their opponent ‘Project Fear’.[3] The epithet trivialized characterizations of leaving the EU as a ‘leap into the dark’[4] and appealed to an anti-intellectualismsee definition - celebrating simple-mindedness and denigrating intellectuals or those with professional credentials as being idealistic, naive, or arrogant.
in many voters, who simply wanted to see the UK leave without consideration of the potential consequences.

Anti-intellectualism is often used to quell rebellion in authoritarian regimes, and has historically manifested in the murders of intelligentsia.[5] In the case of the Brexit campaign however, the technique was used to spur on a distrust of the political elite. Appealing to the proletariat, anti-intellectuals will present themselves as champions of the common folk, more concerned with the will of the people than stuffy academics. Nigel Farage’s charismatic, pint-swigging persona won over those who saw him as an everyday Brit, despite the fact that he was a privately educated millionaire.[6]

For their part, Vote Remain also resorted to fear-mongeringsee definition - spreading exaggerated rumors or dire warnings of impending danger to arouse fear and undermine rational thinking about an issue.
, presenting a view of Britain as a state that would have no hopes of thriving or even surviving as an independent nation.[7] By May, Cameron was warning that ‘peace and stability’ in Europe would be put into question, if Brits did vote to leave. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk chimed in as well, stating that Brexit could trigger the end of ‘Western political civilization.’[8] This descent into hysteria did little for the Remain vote and had people wondering why the Prime Minister would have called the referendum in the first place, if he thought these dire predictions were possible.[6]

The Remain campaign’s most effective weapon was guilt by associationsee definition - using an opponent's links to another person or group to assign the other's beliefs, misdeeds, or other unattractive qualities to the opponent.
. Those who supported Leave were branded as racists by their association to Nigel Farage who, despite not being part of the official campaign, was still ardently campaigning for Brexit. Farage had been lambasted for his offensive statements, like defending the use of racial Chinese slurs and saying he felt uncomfortable when he heard people speaking other languages on London transport.[9] In reality, many voters had legitimate concerns, particularly those with lower income jobs and less job security. These working-class voters were cast as xenophobic and demonized for having worries about rising levels of immigration. By shaming Leave voters as nationalist racists, the Remain campaign helped foment a silent majority of Brexit voters, who did not voice their opinions or show up in most polls, but brought Leave to a surprise victory on the day of the referendum.

In hindsight, the Brexit result was not some unfathomable outcome, as rising levels of apathy for the mainstream parties made a protest vote somewhat inevitable. And while the final outcome may not have been remarkable, what the rival campaigns did demonstrate is how propaganda can be used on both sides of an issue, to shape and influence public opinion. While the fear-mongeringsee definition - spreading exaggerated rumors or dire warnings of impending danger to arouse fear and undermine rational thinking about an issue.
and guilt by associationsee definition - using an opponent's links to another person or group to assign the other's beliefs, misdeeds, or other unattractive qualities to the opponent.
by the Remain camp might have influenced the public’s opinion of Brexiteers, it was Leave's use of anti-intellectualismsee definition - celebrating simple-mindedness and denigrating intellectuals or those with professional credentials as being idealistic, naive, or arrogant.
that ultimately won the day.

References
1. Stephen George, An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community. Oxford University Press. Published: 1998.
2. "UKIP and Cameron's War of Words". BBC News. Published: April 04, 2006.

4. "EU referendum: Leaving EU a 'leap in the dark' says Cameron". BBC News. Published: February 22, 2016.

5. "Attacks on Intelligentsia". I.Biblio. Published: July 27, 2020.

6. Clarke, Goodwin, and Whiteley, Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union, 2017. Cambridge University Press. Published: 2017.
9. "Farage 'felt awkward' on train". Evening Standard. Published: February 28, 2014.