Last year I read Unleashing Demons, a history of the 2016 United Kingdom Referendum to Leave the European Union written by the Craig Oliver. Oliver worked for the europhile and Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron, before working directly for Britain Stronger in Europe — the “Remain” campaign. All out War covers a similar period, but focuses on two rival aspects of the “Leave” campaign: “Vote Leave” (associated with Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, and the euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party) and “Leave.eu” (associated with Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, and the U.K. Independence Party).
Even after I read Unleashing Demons, I had trouble telling “Vote Leave” and “Leave.eu” apart. Part of this was Oliver’s style of writing, where he criticized each of his rivals in broad strokes for weaknesses of any of them. But another reason is the political and cultural differences between the “Vote Leave” and “leave.eu” voters are probably lost on Americans. And to me understanding these divides were probably even more valuable than the day-by-day account of the Referendum campaigns that Shipman presents in All Out War.
The Labour Party is sometimes considered the U.K.’s version of the “Democratic” Party, but that’s not really true. The Labour Party is associated with Trades-Unionism, a form of economic and political organization that was widely discredited in the U.K. in mutual annihilation of the Labour Party and the Labour unions. The election of Margaret Thatcher in that year permanently shifted British politics around managerial capitalism and a social welfare state. The only Labour politician to become Prime Minister since 1979, Tony Blair, did so with a platform and governing agenda indistinguishable from Conservatives such as David Cameron.
After reading All Out War, it feels that British politics falls on a 2×2 axis, of anglophiles against europhiles and elitists against populists. The Conservative Power lock on power is as the cost of incoherence on one of the two important political axes in the country.
The refusal of the Labour Party to be viable, like the Republican parties of California, means a substantial minority of votes in most elections are simply thrown away, because the British Labour Party (like the California Republican Party) is unable to win.
But in the UK-EU Referendum, these votes mattered again. The referendum was a battle within the Conservative Party, between Elitist europhiles (Prime Minister David Cameron, etc) and Elitist anglophiles (Prime Minister Boris Johnson), with unaligned conservatives (Prime Minister Theresa May) and others battling for electoral position. The Referendum can be thought as two contests simultaneously, a Conservative Party civil war (elitist europhiles vs elitists anglophiles) combined with an English Civil War (elitist anglophiles vs populist anglophiles).
The Conservative Civil War
It was shocking to be how many people in the story went to Oxford. Prime Minister Tony Blair (’75), Prime Minister Theresa May (’77), Prime Minister Boris Johnson (’87), Minister Michael Gove (’88), Minister Jeremy Hunt (’88), Prime Minister David Cameron (’88), Dominic Cummings (’94), and Will Straw (’02) are a few. Both the “Remain” campaign (formally, British Stronger in Europe) and the “Vote Leave” campaign orbited this elite. The messaging from both campaigns was primarily designed for the delight: the dangers to the status quo of leaving vs “Vote Leave’s” focus on “respectability.” I greatly admire much of what Dominic Cummings (the campaign advisor for “Vote Leave”) has done, but reading the difference between Remain and Vote Leave, between Cameron and Johnson, felt like the difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The English Civil War
This is why it felt like the most anger was within the Leave campaign – between the Oxfordian “Vote Leave” and the more populist Leave.eu. UK Leader Nigel Farage (Dulwhich College), UKIP Leader Paul Nuttall (Edge Hill), UKIP Member of Parliament Douglas Carswell (East Anglia), donor Arron Banks (no degree) are notable for not going to Oxford — of the prominent Leave.eu faction only MP Mark Reckless has a typical elite degree of Oxford.
Initially I was confused at the venom the two Leave campaigns had for each other, but after realizing the elitist vs. populist alignment made so much make more sense. For instance, “Vote Leave”‘s elitist campaign emphasized the powers of England’s domestic elites, and the ability of England to maintain a complex welfare state on its own.
By contrast, “Leave.eu” focused heavily on immigration. The highest profile advertisement, “Breaking Point,” was viciously attacked by both the Remain and “Vote Leave” sides. This confused me, because on the surface it appeared that “Vote Leave” and “Leave.eu” were cleverly messaging different audiences. But the divide between elitists and populists is deeper than a single election, and it is ironic that in the American mind Dominic Cummings and Nigel Farage are now associated with each other.
A humorous example of this is at one point Remainer and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (Oxford, ’93) warned that if the U.K. left the EU, housing prices would decrease. This was seen by Labour and UKIP voters (and more, who did not vote) as a remain for leaving the EU, as it would make a house more affordable for them or their children.
After All Out War was written Britain had a re-vote of sorts, as Theresa May’s coalition government was replaced by Boris Johnson. Johnson won a “crushing victory” over both the divided Labour/Scottish Nationalist/Liberal-Democrat opposition(s) and his actual rivals, pro-European, Elitist Conservatives. Johnson’s victory was helped by the political sacrifice of Nigel Farage, who withdrew his party from seats held by the Conservatives in a successful effort to guarantee an Anglophile victory.
So the civil wars were both won by Boris Johnson. He defeated David Cameron, he accepted Nigel Farage’s surrender, and he eliminated the Labour Part once again as a viable contender.
Differences with “Unleashing Demons”
As I mentioned, All Out War is primarily from the perspective of the rival Leave campaigns, while Unleashing Demons is from the perspective of the Remain campaign. All Out War is longer, starting earlier (so that the beginning of Unleashing Demons is nearly at the midpoint of All Out War) and continues later (through the replacement of the leadership of all major parties after the Referendum result). Unleashing Demons is written by a participant, so locks you into a single source.
All Out War is also more enjoyable. Human details, such as which pub important events happened in, make it possible to plan a “Brexit” tour of London. In any case, both books were used as sources for the excellent TV movie, Brexit: The Uncivil War.
All Out War is an excellent history of the Brexit referendum and the leaders on both sides. I enjoyed the inside look into Conservative Party politics, and look forward to visiting some of the pub recommendations.