The Washington Post Column

What the media gets wrong about Brexit

“The British vote against the European Union represented the revolt of the poor against the rich, the provinces against the metropolis, the losers of globalization against the elite.” I’m sure you’ve heard some version of that general analysis of last week’s Brexit vote. It’s a fine-sounding cliché. But before it hardens into conventional wisdom, please remember that, like so many of the facts sold to the public during this referendum campaign, it isn’t entirely true.

Yes, the voting statistics do say that the supporters of “leave” were, by and large, poorer and less educated. They also show that support for “remain” was highest in cities, and especially high around universities. But the statistics don’t tell you everything. They don’t tell you, for example, that the intellectual and financial architects of the Brexit campaign were, in fact, fully paid-up members of the metropolitan elite. Nor do they tell you how different the views of those leaders were from the voters they won over, or from one another.

Just to start with, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the two leading conservative supporters of Brexit, are both political columnists. Johnson, a former mayor of London who was famously pro-business and pro-immigration, is still paid to write a weekly column for the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph. Gove, formerly of the Times, is married to a columnist on the pro-Brexit Daily Mail. I am not objecting to their transition from newspapers to politics, just pointing out that neither is accurately described as poor, provincial or anti-establishment. Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, is a former commodity broker who doesn’t look like he’s starving either.

The newspaper editors and proprietors who backed the loudly anti-elitist Brexit campaign are even more well-heeled. On the eve of voting day, the Daily Mail ran this headline: “Lies. Greedy Elites. Or a great future outside a broken, dying Europe: If you believe in Britain, vote Leave.” The Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, earned £2.4 million pounds in 2014. Its proprietor, Viscount Rothermere (a.k.a. Jonathan Harmsworth), is worth £$1.21 billion, according to Forbes, a sum which does not make him a victim of global free trade. I could tell the same story about the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun (voting day headline: “Be-Leave!”) and the Daily Express, whose owner, Richard Desmond, donated 1 million pounds to the U.K. Independence party in 2015.

By contrast, the libertarian and free-market journalists and businessmen who opposed the E.U., and have done so for many years, are not hypocrites. The economist Patrick Minford has long argued that Britain should unilaterally scrap all trade deals, accept the manufacturing losses, drop E.U. regulation on workers’ rights and live off services. A group of London investors wrote a letter stating that “the EU’s approach to regulation now poses a genuine threat to our financial services industry.” But if they are not hypocrites, neither are they uneducated and dispossessed. Minford, an Oxford graduate, has a chair at Cardiff University. Among the letter’s signatories was Crispin Odey, net worth 1.1 billion pounds, also a funder of the leave campaign.

“The E.U.’s failing. The E.U.’s dying,” said UK Independent Party leader Nigel Farage after Britons voted to leave the European Union. He pinpointed the Netherlands and Denmark as a few of the other countries with growing support to leave the international body. (Reuters)
There are other sincere Euroskeptics, people who argue about whether the joint writing of legislation means too great a loss of sovereignty, as well as many, many people who are nostalgic for a different and more English England. I spent Sunday afternoon with some of them. It involved green lawns and clinking glasses, and none of them seemed particularly undernourished either.

But here is the trouble: That elite version of Brexit — England as an offshore haven, a deregulated zone, an arcadian haven, a cosmopolitan business center, the Dubai of the North Atlantic — was not what the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph sold in the campaign, and it isn’t what the leave campaign put on their billboards. Instead, the papers repeated scare stories about immigration and the campaign bus promised that 350 million pounds a week, a completely invented number, would be paid to the National Health Service. The idealists want pure sovereignty; the hedge funds want deregulation; the voters voted for the welfare state.

The result is chaos. The leave campaign does not have a common vision and does not have a common plan because its members wouldn’t be able to agree on one. Iain Duncan-Smith, a pro-Brexit MP and former minister, backpeddaled on the 350 million pounds: “I never said that,” he said — although photographs show he was happy enough to travel on a bus that did. Farage laughed at the number, too. Johnson wrote a column which seemed to suggest that immigration was fine and nothing much would change. In an act of Monty Pythonesque farce, he then temporarily disappeared, refusing to turn up in the House of Commons on the first meeting after his team’s victory. How long will it be before the next revolution — this time against the pro-Brexit elite?