The Charlatan’s Little Box of Tricks[1] 

Michael Dougan[2]


I’ve been asked to speak about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and what it can teach us about the tactics used by politically aggressive (usually hard right) campaigners.

These comments are more the product of professional reflection than of scientific investigation. After all: I’m an EU constitutional lawyer, using the frameworks and methodologies of legal research. But my close experience with Brexit perhaps provides some useful insights into the broader trends and implications which have fed into, and are emerging from, the UK situation.

It is important to recognise that the Leave campaign consisted of an “unholy alliance” of people who would normally have little in common with each other. It was largely right wing but ranging from outright racists and neo-fascists; through insular “Little Englanders” who want to return to the Victorian era; to neo-liberals who regard the EU as a socialist conspiracy to undermine global capitalism. Yet there was also a significant, if much smaller, left wing component – who believe the EU to be a capitalist conspiracy to undermine global socialism (ignoring the contradiction of allying themselves with a much larger movement that says entirely the opposite).

Regardless of their basic political orientation, these disparate tribes rallied around a common Brexit cause. But not only that: they also employed very similar campaigning tactics – which can be divided into four main categories.

1) Tell Lies. And not just “little lies”: people see through “little lies”. Tell “big lies”: some of them will stick, because “surely it can’t all be a lie”. For example:

  • The UK surrendered its sovereignty to the federal super-state of the EU – often expressed as some made-up % of UK law that is imposed by the unelected Eurocrats in Brussels.
  • Unlimited free movement of people damaged the UK economy and public services.
  • Imminent Turkish accession means millions of Turkish immigrants flooding into the UK.
  • The EU plans a single army to assume direct control over the UK’s armed forces.

Those were only a few of the main lies that dominated the public Leave campaign. Behind the scenes, especially on social media, far worse untruths were being systematically disseminated, e.g. that the EU deliberately caused famines in Africa.

2) Sell Fantasies. For example:

  • Everyone knows about the Leave bus which claimed that the £350 million a week sent to Brussels (in itself a lie) could go to fund the NHS instead.
  • The UK held all the cards in the withdrawal negotiations; the EU was so weak and desperate it would capitulate to every UK demand; and these would be “the easiest negotiations in human history”. We all know how that particular fantasy has turned out.
  • The UK would explode onto the world stage as a major power in international trade – with a full round of global trade deals completed by September 2018 at the latest. The current tally is 0.

3) Abuse Opposition. All opposition to the Leave campaign, its victory or its agenda must be savagely attacked. Again, the tactics were highly repetitive.

  • Simple personal abuse/intimidation – from foul language to death threats – invariably aggravated by factors such as gender, race or sexuality.
  • Crying “anti-democracy”: any deviation from how Leave campaigners interpret the 2016 referendum result will render you a dangerous subversive seeking to undermine the “will of the people”.
  • Alleging corruption: anyone who criticises Leave is motivated by vested interests and personal financial gain.
  • Alleging incompetence: Leave campaigners may pronounce on any topic they wish, with complete infallibility, trumping the views of any so-called expert– despite lacking any relevant skills, qualifications of experience of their own.

4) Blame Scapegoats. Of course, as their lies and fantasies began to meet with the cold realities of the world, the Leave campaign wasn’t likely to admit that it had got it all wrong and say sorry. It had to replace its previous lies and fantasies with new ones – blaming everyone else for the mess they had created.

Externally: it was all the fault of the Brussels Bullies, intent on punishing poor little Britain for daring to declare its independence against the European tyranny-machine. Internally: traitors and saboteurs from the “establishment elite” are working to undermine what would otherwise have been a glorious Brexit. Indeed: there is barely an institution of UK state or society left unsavaged by Leave campaigners seeking scapegoats for the failure of their own fantasies to materialise in practice: Parliament, the central civil service, the senior courts, the Bank of England, the devolved governments, the BBC, industry federations, trade unions, universities…

So much for the tactics: lies, fantasies, abuse, scapegoats. The key question is: how far do those tactics add up to something greater than the sum of their individual parts? Are they simply a means to deliver Brexit at any cost, on behalf of a broad alliance of anti-EU campaigners who otherwise have little in common? Or is something more systematic, something deeper also at work here? Let’s make four brief points for reflection and discussion.

1) Regardless of motivation or outcome, there is no doubting the damaging impact of Leave tactics:

  • they create a state of mistrust and cynicism around the very institutions of liberal democracy;
  • they undermine the very idea of objectively verifiable facts – encouraging people to substitute subjective belief systems in place of scientific investigation, evidence and analysis.

2) In that regard, there is also no doubting the important role played by new digital and social media technologies. But of course, that opens up another important debate: how far is social media merely giving a voice and a vehicle to tendencies which have always existed? Or how far is technology actively creating and shaping these feelings of cynicism and subjective belief? And what might be the more positive potential role of technology, in countering the rise and influence of “fake news”?

3) Even if some of its participants hold different views, there is no doubt that a significant and vocal component of the Leave campaign has always seen Brexit, not as an end in itself, but merely as a means to further their own ulterior political objectives (however ill-defined and confused) about some sort of political, economic, social and cultural revolution in the UK. There is a depressing correlation between many of the leading Leave campaigners and other politically and socially regressive ideologies: climate change denial, pro-capital punishment, anti-employment and equality legislation, anti-welfare state, neo-liberal economic policies – all reflecting their natural affinity with the American hard right.

4) Of course: Brexit hasn’t just fuelled support for anti-rational, socially divisive, politically aggressive movements in the UK but elsewhere too. In the Americas and all across Europe, Brexit has become an inspiration for nationalists and populists, charlatans and demagogues. See what can happen when you lie big, when you play on people’s fears, when you offer up enemies rather than solutions? You can win too!

Of course: the British are far too special to have succumbed to the forces of populism themselves: that’s something that only happens to foreigners! But the fact is that Brexit is one of the greatest victories, notched up so far, for the forces of illiberal authoritarianism, currently on the march across the developed world and posing the most serious threat to the institutions and values of liberal social market democracy since 1945.

[1] Presentation to European Forum, Brussels, 1 December 2018 “Discourses That Kill”. Meeting organised under the auspices of Zadig in Belgium, by the Ecole de la Cause Freudienne, New Lacanian School, EuroFederation of Psychoanalysis, and the RIS of the University St Louis, Brussels

[2] Michael Dougan is Professor of European Law at the University of Liverpool. He is an established academic authority on EU constitutional law and Joint Editor of Common Market Law Review. His work has contributed to wider public and political debates about European law, e.g. through expert evidence to numerous UK Parliamentary enquiries and external advice to a range of UK public bodies and Union institutions. Michael’s public engagement activities, including videos of his lectures before and after the 2016 UK referendum, received extensive public and media attention and he continues to be a popular authority on the matter for individuals and groups all around the world.