Public personalities in the EU debate: elites vs. the majority and Bullingdon resurgent – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Public personalities in the EU debate: elites vs. the majority and Bullingdon resurgent

While the corporate media’s reporting of the Referendum campaigns tended towards relaying the proclamations of key figures within the political/corporate establishment, some of their coverage also sought out public opinion on the UK’s EU membership. The Guardian’s John Harris, through his travels across the UK, uncovered an electorate that articulated exasperation at traditional political institutions and expressed a sense of abandonment by the political class. For many, the Referendum presented an opportunity to strike back against an elite with whom they had grown increasingly estranged. In the discourse of the Referendum, the complexities were largely stripped away in favour of simplistic messages that reached the electorate on an affective level. Benefits of European unity and fear of the potentially dire consequences of leaving the EU were pitched against notions of sovereignty and patriotism that veiled a strain of xenophobia to emerge more fully after the result was declared.

These types of emotionally charged campaigns also present fertile ground for radical populists and political opportunists who rank among professional politicians. The more successful figures, such as Nigel Farage, have crafted public personas that position them as outsiders to elite political institutions. They have used this with great effect to align themselves with the disenfranchised masses, in spite of the economic and class interests their persona might have masked.

When public sentiment is provoked in such a manner, yet tied to abstract concepts, it provides the type of environment in which the interventions of entertainment celebrities might prove effective for mobilising the majority. For the Remain Campaign JK Rowling, Jude Law, and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others, argued the benefits of staying within the EU. As it is impossible to determine the in/effectiveness of their individual contributions, we are left to speculate on whether the privileged, largely London-based celebrities had become too closely aligned with the Westminster elite in the minds of the electorate, of whom many faced the thin end of the wedge in austerity Britain. Read in this way, the dichotomy between ‘ordinary’ and ‘elite’ might be a determining factor in our understanding of the role played by public personalities in the EU debate.

These types of emotionally charged campaigns also present fertile ground for radical populists and political opportunists who rank among professional politicians. The more successful figures, such as Nigel Farage, have crafted public personas that position them as outsiders to elite political institutions. They have used this with great effect to align themselves with the disenfranchised masses, in spite of the economic and class interests their persona might have masked.

Such efforts can also be seen with key protagonists in the Conservative Party. The more prominent spokespeople in the party, such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, have worked throughout their careers to fashion public personas more appealing to the majority of voters, and they drew on these in the Referendum campaign in order to sway the electorate. Cameron, lead proponent of the Remain Campaign, has sought over time to manufacture a political brand that unites the antithetical concepts of ‘compassionate’ and ‘conservatism’, but fell back on the authority of his prime ministerial position to support his case. Within the Leave Campaign, Johnson utilised his persona as the bumbling buffoon which has routinely proven lucrative in capturing public affection. A clash of personalities ensued between the two, and much could be gained through considering the Referendum campaigns in terms of the various aspects of their constructed public personas and other components of their personal biographies.

Throughout their careers, both sought to underplay the unique privileges afforded to them as Old Etonian, Oxford-graduate millionaires. This includes distancing themselves from their former membership of the Bullingdon Club; a highly exclusive, all-male, dining society for a clique of privileged Oxford students. With a reputation for raucous, destructive behaviour, members were said to vandalise the local restaurants in which they dined, while in pursuit of their self-indulgent aims, and pay restaurant owners on-the-spot, in cash, for the damage. The Referendum pitched two ex-Bullers against each other. Where Cameron sought to retain his grip on power, Johnson aimed to pursue prime-ministerial ambitions.

Nick Cohen’s profile of Johnson for The Spectator presents him as a chameleon-like political opportunist who changes his stance in pursuit of self-interest. Taking this at face value, Johnson’s position in the Leave Campaign and subsequent post-Referendum back-peddling on key Brexit policies, combined with a lack of coherent exit strategy, becomes clearer. Policy analysts may ponder the political and economic strategy of figures such as Johnson, and question what will actually be different after the UK’s exit – aside from the probable withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, for which Theresa May is likely already salivating. However, reading the campaign in terms of some of the personalities involved suggests an old-fashioned fight for individual political power. It may not be entirely inaccurate to view the Referendum campaign being part-fuelled by a raucous scrap between two ex-Bullers in pursuit of their own self-interest which, rather than being limited to undermining the prosperity of an Oxford restaurant, might cripple the economy of an entire continent, and leave the majority to foot the bill.