Brexit: Project Fear had reason on its side, but anti-experts caught public mood

'People in this country have had enough of experts,' said Michael Gove earlier this month and the referendum result suggests he was right

Andy McSmith
Friday 24 June 2016 17:13
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Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron at a G20 summit in November
Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron at a G20 summit in November

If ever there was a cause that had heavyweight opinion behind it, it was the Remain campaign. Voices of authority from all over the world piled in to warn the British public against the perils of Brexit – though there was less said about the good that might come from staying in the EU.

It was Project Fear once again. That was the name given two years ago to the campaign to persuade Scotland not to leave the UK, which included a warning from George Osborne, reinforced by Ed Balls for Labour and Danny Alexander for the Lib Dems, that the Scots could not count on a deal on currency union if they opted for independence.

That was mild compared with the weeping and gnashing of teeth that would be the consequences of Brexit, according to the warnings from a veritable galaxy of the great and the good.

The Treasury set the tone with a 200-page analysis published on 18 April warning that the average household would be £4,300 a year worse off if the UK swapped membership of the EU with a trade deal like Switzerland’s – and worse still if they failed to do a deal at all.

The Treasury also forecast a fall in the nation’s income as measured in Gross Domestic Product, and a fall in tax receipts equivalent to 8p in the £ off income tax.

Four days later, Barack Obama was in London, warning that when it came a trade deal with the USA, a post-Brexit Britain would be at the ‘back of the queue’.

The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, was a bit more careful in choosing his words. He stressed that it was up to the British to decide their future, but warned that Brexit could have a negative impact on the world economy.

Two weeks later, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that life outside the EU would be equivalent to “losing one month’s income within four years”.

In May, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, went one better, warning that the consequences of Brexit “could possibly include a technical recession.”

Only a week ago, the International Monetary Fund, headed by the French politician Christine Lagarde, warned that Brexit would hit living standards, increase inflation and knock as much as 5.5 per cent off GDP.

These messages were reinforced by EU leaders anxious for the British to stay. “I don’t want to scare you,” France’s President Hollande said in March, but “there will be consequences.” Leaving would be “like an amputation,” warned the former EU President, Harman van Rompuy. Countries “at the bargaining table” fare better than those “outside the room”, Germany’s Angela Merkel added, earlier this month.

In case anyone thought this was just a capitalist chorus protecting the interest of big business, the TUC and the big trade unions weighed in to warn that workers’ rights could be at risk outside the EU's protective legislation.

And the warnings were not all about the economy. The former head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said in May that “to leave would present real risks to our security and safety” because of a loss of British influence in the forums where EU states co-operate in dealing with the terrorist threat.

The same point was made by another former head of MI5, Lord Evans, and a former head of MI5, Sir John Sawers, who signed a joint letter warning that "the terms on which we exchange data with other European countries are set by agreement within the EU.”

The peak of Project Fear was George Osborne’s ‘austerity budget’ nine days before the vote – not a real budget, but an ‘illustrative’ one with which the Chancellor hoped to frighten the nation into voting Remain.

It included theoretical tax increases amounting to £15bn a year, including five per cent hikes in petrol and alcohol duties, and £15 bn a year in spending cuts, including 5 per cent, including 5 per cent off police, transport and council budgets.

Vote for Brexit and that is what you will get, the Chancellor sternly warned. He may have cause to regret saying all that when the contest for the Conservative leadership begins.

After hearing so many warnings from so many authoritative sources, why did the British public do the very thing they had been warned not to do?

Undoubtedly, much of the Brexit vote was fuelled by a sense that all these experts and opinion leaders inhabited a world, apart from the everyday problems of people struggling on modest or low incomes.

The anti-expert sentiment was reinforced by the constant reminders from Brexit campaigners of famous occasions when experts got it wrong, such as their failure to foresee the 2008 banking crisis or the debacle in 1992 after Britain joined Europe’s exchange rate mechanism.

Michael Gove even cited the example of 100 German scientists living under the Nazi regime who rubbished Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity because Einstein was a Jew.

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” Mr Gove declared, earlier in the month.

The referendum result was certainly a victory for everyone who thinks the country can do without experts.

The anti-experts will have their chance to take over the government when David Cameron bows out in the next four months. When they are in charge, they will of course need advice on what to do. But where will they get it from, if not from the experts?

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