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Brexit: It was leadership performance what won it (Pt 1)

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The highly unanticipated Brexit vote of June 2016 led to numerous explanations being put forward as to why the UK took such a dramatic decision, with a fear of globalisation and immigration being constantly identified as the main reason. However, little attention was given to one of the most prominent factors in shaping voters’ opinion, namely political leaders’ rhetoric.

Various studies had previously stated that given citizens’ lack of direct experience of the EU, politicians’ comments in favour or against the EU influence voting behaviour (Garry, 2013; Atickan, 2017). If we also consider UK citizens’ traditionally low levels of knowledge about the EU, then the centrality of rhetoric in explaining the outcome of the 2016 referendum is even clearer. So how then did Leave win?

Aristotle’s tripartite structure consisting of pathos, logos and ethos provides a framework for analysing the persuasive appeal of the referendum campaign speeches.

In terms of pathos or appeal to emotions, leaders from the Leave camp managed to convey negative emotions by defining the EU from a political angle as an organisation whose ultimate objective is –in the words of Johnson- creating ‘a country called Europe’. Given the UK’s role in the world wars in defeating Nazism, federalism and supranationalism have traditionally been rejected in the country (Holmes, 2014: 565), which explains the effectiveness of this argument in fostering a negative opinion about the EU. Cameron tried to counterbalance this by pointing out the ‘close culture of intergovernmental cooperation’ of the EU including a veto, but to no avail as Gove soon highlighted that Britain cannot veto EU legislation agreed by Qualified Majority Voting –the process whereby unanimity is not needed for decisions to be made at the Council of the EU and European Parliament and which was extended by the Treaty of Lisbon-. Gove and Johnson’s portrayal of the UK as a ‘hostage’ of the EU’s agenda is then rather successful. Leave further managed to establish this negative characterisation of the EU by attacking Remain’s main argument, being that the UK should stay in the EU because it gives access to ‘the largest single market, trading zone in the world’, thus also being a source of economic prosperity, job creation and security. Not only did Leavers refute the sentiment of economic dependence on the EU (as Johnson put it: ‘Would the Germans discriminate our bicycles if they thought we would discriminate against their BMWs? Of course, they wouldn’t’), but also the three most prominent anti-EU leaders strongly appealed to emotions in regards to the economy by bringing in the NHS –to which the public is very attached- and advising that the EU membership fee should be spent on this service instead, and emotionally referring to youth unemployment in southern European countries to present the EU as a ‘job destroying machine’ in Gove’s words. Crucially, Corbyn also delegitimised the economic argument from within the pro-EU camp by affirming that TTIP could ‘open up public services to further privatisation’ or lead to a ‘watering down’ of consumer and workers’ rights as well as environmental protections. Leave skilfully attacked Remain’s most powerful arguments while Remainers failed to attack Leave, most notably Farage’s social definition of the EU as a burden to tackle crime and terrorism, since he said that it forces the UK to accept ‘uncontrolled immigration’. This issue, which was the top concern of British citizens at the time of the referendum according to polling data, was largely ignored by Remain, thus making Leave’s appeals to fear of immigration –such as Johnson’s claim that Britain adds ‘a population the size of Newcastle every year’- all the more effective.

Regarding the logical structure of the argument (logos), it is evident that both camps used opposing logics: Leave relied on an ‘us vs. them’ logic contrarily to Remain (’us with them). However, whereas Leave’s case was coherent with their attacks to the different aspects of the EU pointed out above, Remain’s logic was not as coherent; since Cameron, Osborne and Corbyn advocated for ‘staying in a reformed EU’, but without giving details about the overarching reforms to be undertaken (except for Corbyn’s isolated calls to improve social and workers’ rights at EU level) while the then PM also affirmed that the most positive aspect of the EU, namely the single market, was in place thanks to UK leadership, which affects the reasoning for voting in. Although Crines (2016) argues that Remain was stronger in logos because they used more logical economic arguments, it is pertinent to remind that logos refers to the logic of the structure of the argument, which -as we have just explained- in the case of Remain presents some problems. Even if logos was understood as the use of arguments that appear reasonable, it could be argued that, although not always legitimate, Leave’s arguments were also plausible: e.g. saving £350m a week as a result of not having to pay the EU membership fee.

As we shall see in our next post, the final element that all leaders need to work on for their arguments to be effectively persuasive is the construction of a persona that is trustworthy (ethos) so that the public feels that they can rely on the narratives analysed above when casting the ballot.

Posted by Sara Aguilar-Suárez, MA candidate in the European Union and International Relations at Aston University

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