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Brexit: It was leadership performance what won it (Pt 2)

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Following on from the previous post, Aristotle stated that there is a need to add a moral character (ethos) to moving (pathos) and logical narratives for leadership performance to come across as persuasive. Given the size of Britain, with over 60 million inhabitants, it would be difficult for everyone to meet a given politician; which is why not only rhetoric, but also the media’s coverage of leaders determines, to a great extent, their persona (Gaffney, 2001, 129).

Although Cameron stated that he loves the country to justify that Britain should stay in the EU so as to guarantee its peace and stability, the lack of effectiveness of this argument in the UK, given the country’s role in the wars, damaged the then PM’s persona given the media’s qualification of his statement as ‘escalation of rhetoric’ (The Independent) or ridiculing it by interpreting it as ‘Brexit triggering World War III’ (The Mirror). The media equally undermined Osborne’s argument about the need for an emergency budget in case of Brexit by accusing him of ‘threatening’ (The Daily Mail), thus legitimising Leave’s label of ‘Project Fear’.

The pro-Brexit camp also managed to weaken the other camp’s economic case for remaining, which was supported by a majority of experts and business leaders around the world, by naming some business leaders who supported Leave such as Lance Foreman (Gove) or by accusing Remain of manipulating their supporters, hence why in one of his speeches Obama said ‘queue’ instead of ‘line’ (according to Farage). In doing so, Leave casted doubts over the credibility of consensus vis-à-vis pro-EU leaders’ economic justification.

Crucially, Leavers managed to distance themselves from the unreliable establishment, audaciously tapping into the public’s decrease in trust in the political class in western democracies. Despite arguably classifying as the establishment (Farage was an MEP, Gove was Secretary of State for Justice and Johnson was Mayor of London), pro-Brexit leaders set themselves apart through their informal behaviour, colloquial language, humour and physical appearance (Johnson’s dishevelled hairstyle and Farage’s old-fashion attire being remarkably different from the elites), which allowed them to appear close to ordinary citizens, honest and reliable while successfully attacking Remainers’ lack of honesty about their Europhilia, given the country’s Eurosceptic political tradition and previous declarations, e.g. Cameron called for ‘a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments’ in his 2013 Bloomberg EU speech.

The presence of Johnson and Gove in the Leave camp brought legitimacy to this side’s cause (Clarke et al. 2017: 31) by distancing calls for migration controls from the xenophobic overtones traditionally associated to UKIP; they justified this by arguing that it would make migration policy fairer by not discriminating on grounds of nationality and made this claim legitimate by referring to their personal lives: the multilingual Johnson lived in a number of foreign countries during his childhood, while Gove’s wife was brought up in Italy. In doing this, they moved away from Cameron’s ‘Little England’ accusation without damaging Farage’s cause against multiculturalism.

The Eurosceptic tabloid media also favoured Leavers by presenting them in positive terms even when reporting some of its most controversial claims, e.g. The Telegraph leniently reported Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler by avoiding criticism against the claim.

Although Corbyn could have challenged the association of Remain to the ‘distant establishment’, since he is seen by many politicians as an outsider and was elected by Labour members as party leader; he damaged Remain’s legitimacy from within by rejecting their economic arguments and could not escape hypocrisy accusations because he campaigned against EC membership in the 1975 referendum. Going forward, if the UK is to have a second referendum on the final deal regarding its future relationship with the EU, as Farage himself has recently suggested, it would be pertinent to set up bodies to provide citizens with objective information at their request, as well as setting up independent bodies to check the veracity of arguments (White & Johnson, 2017) with democratic powers to pursue those who spread misleading arguments, such as the £350m weekly savings if the UK was to leave the EU, which did not take into account the rebate and the fact that part of that amount is given back to the UK’s public and private sectors (Banducci & Stevens, 2016: 22). It would also be necessary to tackle the press regulation issues in the country, as during the campaign it was clear that the Eurosceptic tabloids directed opinion towards Leave (Deacon et al. 2016).

Finally, from this post, we can also understand that studying the rhetoric of UK, EU and EU nation leaders during the present negotiation period will help us to understand the outcome of the negotiation, since the rhetorical constructions of Brexit will shape the actual meaning and practical implications of the phenomenon (cf. Adler-Nissen et al. 2017).

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

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