"We're nicer than you" - the Leave campaign's misleading siren shout
It’s always interesting to see how groups regard themselves. It is not unusual for any sort of group to take a rather positive view of itself and, by contrast, demean other groups. Nowhere is this more likely than in the tribal bear-pit of politics. Political parties have long had a rather favourable view of themselves which doesn’t seem to have been readily passed on to anyone outside their nicely insular organisations, and now the two sides of the European referendum campaign are at it too.
The loudest bleaters seem to be the Out campaign. Barely a week of the campaign goes by without a slew of Outers complaining about the tone and attitude of everyone else. There was a particularly concerted campaign today to claim that they themselves were all lovely, decent people while the mean old Remainers are unpleasantly attacking them. In particular, various Leave partisans professed to be wounded and upset by the terrible attacks launched against their de facto leader, Boris Johnson.
We should certainly take these with a hefty shovelful of salt. Firstly, Mr. Johnson’s incendiary comments are deliberately aimed to provoke mass outrage and they succeed wonderfully. His most recent invocation of Hitler as a sort of pre-cursor to the EU is precisely the sort of ludicrous, over-the-top assertion that Mr. Johnson has made his stock in trade for years. As a historical observation, it is panders to the outer fringes of myopic lunacy. Whatever Mr. Johnson’s intelligence, it is certainly great enough to understand that there is no comparison between the dictators and monarchs of history trying to subjugate Europe, and the rather more collegiate endeavour – no matter how flawed – of the European Union. Also, barely a week after his mayoral predecessor, Ken Livingstone caused such outrage with his own Hitler comments, it is inconceivable that Boris didn’t know that using the H word would do the same for him.
Boris wanted us to talk about him, and about Europe, probably in that order, and he succeeded admirably. He is also perfectly capable of throwing brick-bats towards the Remain campaign, and especially the Prime Minister, who he accused of deviously planning to sell Britain to the corporate backers of the EU campaign during his battlebus tour. It was Boris, also, who described David Cameron as “demented” for suggesting that leaving the EU would lead to “bubonic plague and world war three”, neither of which Cameron had in fact specifically mentioned in his speech. (The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland penned an interesting piece associating Boris with Trump as one of what he called the "post-truth politicians".)
As for the Leave campaigners themselves, they have emerged from one of the most vicious training schools of fratricidal politics that Britain has ever seen – the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory party. Nothing has ever been too extreme for the sceptics, and we saw some of their parliamentary ilk seek yesterday to try and sabotage their own government’s Queen’s Speech as they apparently plotted to defeat it in an unholy alliance with Jeremy Corbyn. Last week they unloaded shed-loads of venom on the governor of the Bank of England for having the temerity to suggest that there might be economic consequences if we leave. Before that, Barack Obama was their target - an unprincipled president who had dared to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. And ITV, of course, has been threatened with reprisals for not doing the Leave campaign's bidding, with a sinister reminder that the present lot in No. 10 won't be there for very long. Not exactly a litany of loveliness and politeness I'd say.
Euro-sceptics, and now the Leave campaign at large, have always portrayed themselves as plucky little mavericks fighting against the fascistic vested interests of the state and the EU. If you want to stick with misbegotten historical analogies, that’s about as accurate as suggesting Hitler was simply a brave German freedom fighter.