Tag Archives: Brexit

Impressions of “All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class,” by Tim Shipman

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

I read All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit,” by Craig Oliver

Recently I read Unleashing Demons by Craig Oliver, an adviser to former UK Prime Minister David Cameron who also worked with the anti-Brexit campaign, “Stronger In.” Unleashing Demons presents an inside view of the failed attempt to convince the British people they should stay in the European Union. Oliver does a good job presenting a detailed history of events and lays blame at numerous people, but not himself nor his former employer. He makes a few claims that are questionable. The book itself is clearly intended for a British audience, but there’s some overlap with US politics too.

Unleashing Demons appears to be a re-purposed diary. It’s very detailed, and does not have a real sense of pacing. It seems likely that most of the book is literally composed of what Oliver recorded happening that day, narrowed down to the EU referendum.

The book begins shortly before the campaign. Oliver’s faction, “Britain Stronger in Europe”) or “Stronger In” for short),” was composed of the leadership of the Conservative, Labor, Liberal-Democrat, Green, and Scottish National Parties. The opposing faction, “Vote Leave” (and its frenemy, “Leave.eu”) was primarily composed of unhappy Conservative Party members, including cabinet ministers. One consequence of this is that the “Stronger In” campaign was strongly associated with the establishment. Oliver realizes this, but fails to appreciate how profoundly this blinded him. At several points Oliver (who narrates the audible edition) seems truly angry and bewildered by “experts” in “post-war institutions” were so widely distrusted. He lives in an establishment world where the financial crisis and the Iraq occupation have not destroyed the credibility of the elite. Another consequence is that the Brexit referendum was seen as a Conservative Party civil war by the other parties. Oliver suspects the incompetent assistance by other parties may have been given on purpose, in order to weaken the Conservative Party.

Oliver briefly describes the pro-Brexit campaign. The official pro-Brexit campaign was Vote Leave, actually led by Cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove. At the same time the U.K Independent Part of Nigel Farage ran a more enthusiastic wildcat campaign, Leave.eu. While tensions between these campaigns are mentioned, but pro-Brexit side appeared more united than the anti-Brexit side.

An irony of the book is that beliefs now associated with Brexiteers (such as that a vote is irrevocable, that “out means out,” and so on) were largely pushed by the Leave campaign and the Cameron administration. This is part of what was called disparagingly “Project Fear,” justified by Oliver as a method of emphasizing the negative aspects of Brexit as a risk to the self-interest of marginal British voters. Within the narrative previous Labor Prime Ministers argued against this approach, emphasizing that while the Brexit side has both a positive message (regain sovereignty) and a negative one (risk from immigration), the pro-Brexit side has only a negative message (risk to the economy) without a positive message (either Brown’s “lead not leave” British power within the EU, or a focus on an “open” world). In the text Oliver is dismissive of this view.

Oliver lists a number of villains who are responsible for Brexit being passed. These include German Chancellor Merkel’s immigration policy, the Labour party for sabotaging the referendum, disloyal Conservative ministers, people “who don’t like brown people”, a lack of a pro-EU story, and the BBC for not silencing news he disliked. In the book and outside it he has called for the BBC to censor political views he dislikes. These include differences from whether or not Turkey can ever join the EU, to whether there might be a EU army.

Unleashing Demons touches on American politics in a few points. The chief pollster for the anti-Brexit campaign was Jim Messini, who also worked for Obama’s successful reelection campaign. Earlier in the book the narrative feels like it’s broken to insist Obama’s line, that Britain would go “in the back of the queue,” was written without British assistance, even though that is not an American expression. As the book neared its conclusion it began to feel more like Donna Brazille’s Hacks, as it became increasingly bitter to members of the author’s own party.

I read Unleashing Demonshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Fear: The Inside Story of Brexit in the Audible edition.