Less a soap opera, more a fantasy drama? – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Less a soap opera, more a fantasy drama?

The referendum campaign was not just conveyed by our media; it was constituted by them. This was not just a matter of media logic applied to politics, but of cultural conventions forming the narrative and content of the campaign. It was an exercise in popular culture and the popular imagination, rather than in political communication and political persuasion.

political discourse has become coarser, but not because ‘we’ have become coarser, but because of the way experience has replaced research as the currency of truth, because identity has become the source of value (cosmopolitanism vs community), and because political principles have been reconfigured and reconstituted as popular cultural tastes and imaginaries.

The big show-downs were pure showbusiness. The BBC staged the ‘Great Debate’ in the Wembley Arena, in front of an audience of 6000, with the protagonists projected onto big screens, as if they were rock stars performing at the nearby Stadium. Channel 4’s ‘Europe: The Final Debate’ (the Final Frontier?) was promoted with the promise of contributions from June Sarpong, Nish Kumar, Rick Astley, Delia Smith, Mike Read, Theo Paphitis, among other media celebrities.

The viciousness of the exchanges in the debates and elsewhere channeled the vindictiveness of X Factor judges and Big Brother House contestants. Or aspired to the quaint farces of an Ealing Comedy as Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof bellowed at each other across the Thames.

Then there was the matter of ‘expertise’, an idea either ambiguously advocated or darkly suspect. A Remain leaflet sent days before the vote boldly quoted ‘Ian’ on the front: ‘I won’t let anybody else decide my future’. On the other side, the third of three points pronounced ‘The Weight of Evidence is Overwhelming’, and in support it read: “From Richard Branson to JK Rowling, from Stephen Hawking to Alan Sugar … all agree that we are better off IN”.

For the Leavers, experts were – for the most part – to be derided, their expertise attributed to self-interest or some darker forces. Conspiracy theories, the stuff of so many Hollywood movies, were routinely deployed to discount unpalatable evidence. Experts were all in the pay of a Bond villain (or worse, if Michael Gove was to be believed).

While the Remainers dabbled in another Hollywood myth: the imminent apocalypse, the Leavers conjured up an idyllic island of peace, plenty and populist sovereignty. One Leave political broadcast about the NHS portrayed two scenarios: one in which an elderly patient is made to wait because of all the freeloaders from Europe were being treated ahead of her; the other where the waiting room was almost deserted, and the treatment was fast and attentive. The images and the plot were identical to a Labour election broadcast in 1992, where two young girls were being treated for the same complaint, and one went privately and the other depended on the NHS. Just as Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster recycled both Nazi propaganda and Saatchi and Saatachi’s Labour’s Not Working.

All campaigns are narratives (as the creator of Harry Potter pointed out in a blog about the Referendum; what matters is the genre of the narrative. Politics has been dismissed in the past as soap opera – a benign image of families at odds within and without (YouGov asked people how TV characters might vote: the Vicar of Dibley led the list of Remainers; Jim Royle the Leavers. This campaign itself conjured up less parochial visions. At times, it came closer to Game of Thrones.

As such, it was a very unmusical campaign. Much mockery was made of the Leave campaign’s attempt to organize a concert in support of its cause. The best they could muster, according to the Mirror, was ‘three-quarters of Bucks Fizz and an Elvis impersonator’. The Scottish referendum, by contrast, was more tuneful, although the songs belonged mostly to the independence cause. For Better Together, as for the EU debate, there was no unifying national image to set to music. Maybe it’s hard to write catchy songs about the single market or the virtues of a points-based immigration system.

All of this might be seen as trivial footnotes to the campaign. It might, though, be symptomatic of a marked change in political discourse. It has become coarser, but not because ‘we’ have become coarser, but because of the way experience has replaced research as the currency of truth, because identity has become the source of value (cosmopolitanism vs community), and because political principles have been reconfigured and reconstituted as popular cultural tastes and imaginaries.