The Morning After: Brexit of Champions

How poor communication and The Big Lie affected the referendum in the UK to leave the European Union

Well, well, here we are, cleaning up the mess after the UK has voted to leave the European Union. It was quite a party, the hooligans were out among the lambs, detritus was thrown and left on the ground, hangovers were rampant, and come the mourning after, everyone had to get a grip on in order to keep down their Weetabix.

Apparently, already four million people (as of this writing) have signed a petition asking if they couldn’t just vote again – pleeeeeze. According to a Washington Post article, Britons spent the next day searching on line to find out what the European Union was. You’d think they’d have wanted to do that before they voted, wouldn’t you?

Lie to me

A good piece of the answer to why they didn’t comes with the now time-worn phrase, “The big lie.”

The term originally came from Adolf Hitler, who applied it to Jews in Mein Kampf. His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, turned it into a technique that can be summed up as, people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

Another characteristic of the big lie is to never give the public any rest from the pressure, and never admit any alternatives exist.

The story told by the “Leave” campaign contained a number of such big lies. Let’s look at one: The UK sends 350 million pounds to Brussels every week, and that money could build new hospitals, and would be used to beef up the ailing National Health Service (NHS) in Britain. The only problem is, while the UK does send that money out, it gets ⅔ of it back in the form of agricultural subsidies, and the famous blank cheque demanded by Margaret “I want my money back” Thatcher. The lion’s share of that return, by the way, comes from France.

After the referendum, on the TV programme, “Good Morning Britain,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage admitted that he could not guarantee that this money would all be spent on health, or that it even existed.

Another “Leave” campaign theme was immigration control. One image featured large queues of “foreign looking” candidates for asylum and raised the spectre of hoards of people “not like us” that might come if Britain stayed in. But immigration from inside the E.U. doesn’t come from Syria or Eritrea, it comes from Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Greece, even France and Germany. And those immigrants are well-integrated into British society, they’re working, and are largely invisible.

Under a bilateral treaty, the Treaty of Touquet, the French-UK border is established on the French side of the English Channel, with disastrous consequences for the city of Calais, due to improvised camps of desperate would-be asylum seekers, blocked from entering the UK by French police (yes, France is protecting the UK’s borders against the “ugly masses”). With the UK out of the E.U., France has little incentive to continue this agreement, even though it was not conducted inside the E.U. framework. In other words, by voting itself out of the E.U. Britain may find itself with similar camps at Dover.

The Real Immigration Problem and the Generation Gap

The UK does have an immigration problem, and it is a domestic one. The UK has a population of 64.1 million people (2013 figures, per a variety of sources, including the World Bank). France has just a bit more, at 66.03 million (same year & sources). But the UK is just over ⅓ the size of France. The “immigration” problem is, in reality, a population problem. Town councils are struggling to provide  infrastructure, and land is at a premium in a country that values its rural landscape highly.

That said, in the UK as in the rest of Europe, more people die every year than are born. This means that in the long term, the UK needs immigrants. What it has to do is find solutions to its short-term infrastructure and land use problems, so that the future population it needs can be accommodated.

That part of the story wasn’t told.

Young against old

Young people voted largely for “Remain.” Older folks (baby-boomers like me) voted for “Leave.” The young ones were born into, and grew up in, the European Union. I recall, when I received my French nationality, I told my then teenage (Spanish) son, “I’m French now.” He replied, “You’re European now.” Problem is, there are more of us than there are young folks in Britain, and those young people are now being deprived of the European citizenship they were born with.

Disunited Kingdom

The same complaint goes for the Scots and the Northern Irish. One of the reasons Scotland voted “No” in the recent independence referendum was that they were afraid of losing their European citizenship – something that could have happened had they separated from the UK. Now, with an imminent separation of the UK from the rest of Europe, Scotland sees no reason not to vote again – and prime minister Nicola Sturgeon says she’ll do it when she knows she can win.

The situation is perhaps even more delicate for Northern Ireland. With the UK out of the European Union, the Ulster-Republic of Ireland border closes down once again, becomes the border between the UK and the EU. When free and open passage across the border between the two Irelands has been a major part of the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, and when you note that Northern Ireland voted largely to remain in the EU, you can start to see the problem waiting to happen.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 00.06.41
How Britain Voted in the Referendum – Source: The New York Times


Lie to Me Some More

Well, they voted, and they voted to leave. So it’s settled, isn’t it?

Brexit – well, maybe not

Both Boris Johnson, the man most likely to take over Britain’s conservative party, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have stated publicly that there’s no hurry to start the process in motion. What?

The way it works is that the whole process is up to the UK. Article 50 of the European Union treaty requires that if a country wants to leave, that country must initiate the process described in the article. But David Cameron, who has resigned as prime minister, has said he will leave this job to his successor – in October. BoJo, as the most likely suspect is known, is in no hurry to get started either.

Update 30 June 2016: After Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced his candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership, Boris Johnson decided not to run. The current favourite seems to be Home Secretary Theresa May, who has advocated that the UK pull out of the European Court of Human Rights.

Seems the “Leave” camp had no plan for success. Indeed, they didn’t expect to win. Once the Article 50 process begins, they have two years to negotiate the disengagement. During that time, the UK will remain a member of the EU. Lots of questions are open.

  • Will they still have veto power?
  • Will they still have a European Commissioner?
  • What about their EU parliament members, how can they vote on the future of the union?
  • Will they still get their blank cheque?

The UK’s European Commissioner, Lord Hill, has resigned. He was in charge of financial services, and could have veto power over the finances of an organization his country  had voted to leave. You can see how resigning was his only honourable course – especially since he supported the “Remain” camp. It also demonstrates the untenable contradiction in which the UK now finds itself.

Le Monde editorialist Arnaud Le Parmentier wrote last Saturday that “Brexit will never happen.” He quotes Pascal Lamy, former director of the World Trade Organisation, who said, “You can’t make eggs from an omelette.” If you liken the process to a divorce proceeding, it can go on forever, get very ugly, and at the end, the agreement is so awful that the parties decide to stay married.

In fact, the referendum was “merely” consultative. Initiating Article 50 must be voted by Parliament. The current parliament would most probably defeat such a measure. If Boris Johnson takes over the Conservative leadership – and thus the Prime Ministership – will he call new elections? It could take as long as two years before the measure even comes up for a vote – and it could be never, should the government not press.

 A Symptom and a Warning

The story of poor communication that is the campaign for the referendum and its aftermath is not unique to the UK. It’s a manifestation of a communications breakdown between the governors and the governed throughout the Western World. Democracies are threatened by the Big Lie. The Big Lie is being told by politicians who are mostly interested in maintaining power, not leading.

Thus we can see Donald Trump, in the U.S. using similar tactics to the UK “Leave” campaign. We see Viktor Orban doing it in Hungary, and Beata Szydło in Poland. François Hollande, in France, promulgates laws that make exceptional restrictions on freedom permanent, “in order to protect freedom” – the same kind of arguments made by George W.Bush and his gang. In Spain, Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular can continue to govern and run in elections despite hundreds of millions of euros in corruption scandals, and flagrant proven illegal acts by the interior minister for political ends.

Instead of communication, we get spin. Sometimes, we don’t even get that, we just get lies.

In my next post, I’ll explain why, despite all that I’ve written here, I will be glad if the UK really does leave the European Union.

Thanks to David Stein and Neus Lorenzo for leading me to some of the information cited in this post.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (, a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium ( and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

8 thoughts on “The Morning After: Brexit of Champions”

  1. I won’t argue about the big lie, but I think it is important to recognize that what so many ordinary people have been getting from the current elites for a long time is the big sneer. There has been a wholesale destruction of the local cultures and economies. Much of it may have been inevitable, but when people have protested about it they have largely been sneered at and called xenophobes and worse.

    Human beings are wonderful generous accepting creatures when we don’t feel their livelihoods and their place in the world threatened. We are nasty scratching biting things when those things are threatened. So much of political discourse today consists of the secure sneering at the insecure. (Certain groups of the insecure have a kind of privileged status as pet projects of the elites, but by no means everyone. And even the pet projects don’t really prosper from the patronage.) The secure are not morally superior. They would be as defensive and suspicious themselves if their security was stripped away.

    It is not, as the big lie likes to suggest, that the secure are necessarily the cause of the misery of the insecure. That is more the result of tidal forces that neither can really control or direct. But if you are among those feeling insecure, and if all you hear is the big sneer and the big lie, which are you most likely to listen to?

    Yes, the truth is very hard to tell and very hard to swallow. Globalization is not really a choice but a fact. And that creates tidal forces that rip apart cultures and communities in the first world as much as in the third. But nobody is going to listen to that truth as long as it comes attached to the big sneer.

    The big sneer is every bit as much a communication failure, and every bit as much a factor in the Brexit vote, as the big lie.

    Why is Trump so popular with his constituency, despite his obviously loose relationship with both truth and civility? Because he sneers right back. The big sneer creates the conditions in which the big lie can prosper.

    1. Mark, thanks for explaining very clearly a subtext of my post. I completely share your view on this. In fact, the big sneer can also be seen as a symptom of overweening arrogance, which would be the primary cause of public “disconnection” with political leaders.

      I do think economics has a lot to do with this – something I’ll get to in more detail in my next post.

  2. This was a very useful article, Ray. The one thing you didn’t mention, which I heard on France2, was that it was more a referendum on David Cameron’s austerity policies than it was on leaving the EU. Would you agree with that?

    1. Thanks, Pam, for your comment. I’m surprised you heard that assertion on France 2, because most of the commentators in France that I’ve heard (I don’t have a TV in France, so I mostly listen to the radio) are saying the opposite, that for once, this was a referendum purely on the issues, and not on some other national question.

      That said, your question is trickier than it might seem at first blush. David Cameron, like most European leaders, has had the habit of blaming austerity policies on the EU, whether or not it was true. They should not be surprised when people don’t like the EU afterwards, and perhaps that’s what the commentator meant to imply (?).

      This is a perfect example of the combined Big Lie and Big Sneer that Mark Baker speaks of in his comment above. Governments have done the EU bad service by blaming their own bad policies or bitter pills towards the EU, showing total disdain for Europe and for their own people.

      The whole question of liberal economics (for Americans, “liberal” economics over here means neoconservative) is a huge factor in peoples’ disaffection for the EU, but that’s also the reflection of whom they vote for at home – a great paradox about which I’ll write more in my next post.

    2. This seems to be a very common trope among commentators and politicians. A vote is not really about what it says it is about, it is really a vote about whatever issue I think is most important. (And it really means that most people agree with me about that issue.)

      To add my contribution to this art form, I don’t think it was about immigration or trade so much as it was about subsidiarity. Subsidiarity may be written into the European constitution, but it is anathema to the spirit of bureaucracy. There is always a way to argue that any particular matter needs to be handled at the higher level. Local people can only be allowed to make choices if they make the right ones.

      Subsidiarity is not something the average person thinks about much as long as the decisions that are being made don’t impact their lives negatively. Its when you are affected that you wake up and discover that the decisions are being made far away by people over whom you have no control or influence. That is when you start wanting more local control, more accountability, and more democracy.

      People are often more generous and more tolerant when they feel that they have a say in matters that affect them. When they feel both threatened and powerless, they tend to fight back. In this sense, I think the issue of subsidiarity subsumes the issues of trade and immigration to an extent.

      Where you get subsidiarity, you will of course get variation, and you will get some ungenerous decisions and policies. You will get some short sighted and parochial thinking. All of this may lead to sub-par economic performance (though it may also lead to more innovation). But you will also have people who feel more in control of their lives and more connected to their neighbours because they work with them to govern themselves.

      Perhaps the Brexit will prove to be a step towards a more loosely coupled union that may better balance the benefits of trade and integration with the desire of communities to govern themselves and their affairs.

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