The road to Brexit – part two…

You can read part one here…

The Conservative Party and Brexit

In her Bruges speech on 20 September 1988 Margaret Thatcher said[1]:

We have not embarked on the business of throwing back the frontiers of state at home only to see a European superstate getting ready to exercise a new dominance from Brussels.

The speech exposed the divisions in the Conservative party between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. The date is conventionally taken as the start of the Brexit process[2].

In a speech in 1962 Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State said[3]:

Great Britain had lost an Empire but not yet found a role.

The UK had been the leader, the sovereign of the Empire, used to being in command (and winning wars). The UK was seemingly unable to accept or adjust to a new position of equality with other European countries; the UK’s political and legal systems were also very different. The supposed dominance of an apparently socialist European superstate, with attendant loss of sovereignty, was very threatening for many on the right[4].

John Major’s government was visibly split over Europe and often seemed barely able to function[5]; Tory Eurosceptics formed two cabals, the Bruges Group[6] and the European Research Group (ERG)[7]. New Labour also embraced and advanced neoliberalism but while there were Eurosceptics within the party, dissent on this issue was not a significant problem, though Gordon Brown manoeuvred to keep the UK out of the Euro.

The Tories remained very divided on the issue, and saw the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP as a particular electoral threat. In his first speech in 2006 as leader to the Conservative Conference, David Cameron called on the party to “stop banging on about Europe”[8]. His words went unheeded.

After the 2010 election and the formation of a coalition government Tory MPs continued to “bang on”. In a debate in 2011 about a referendum 81 Tory MPs defied a three line whip[9] [10].

So it was that, by the spring of 2012, David Cameron … had all but come round to the idea — first mooted by William Hague — that, since the pressure from the parliamentary party for a referendum would sooner or later become unstoppable, it might be better to announce one pre-emptively. Such an announcement would also, it was hoped, spike UKIP’s guns well before the next European Parliament elections.  This was something everyone in the Party was desperate to do for fear that success for Nigel Farage in June 2014 — a success that transpired anyway, it turned out — would set him up nicely for the general election the following year[11].

In early 2013, in a speech delivered at the headquarters of Bloomberg, Cameron said[12]:

That is why I am in favour of a referendum. I believe in confronting this issue — shaping it, leading the debate. Not simply hoping a difficult situation will go away.

It will be an in-out referendum.

Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year.

It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics.

I say to the British people: this will be your decision.

The LibDems, a Europhile party, prevented the Coalition calling a referendum. At the 2015 general election they were nearly wiped out as a party because of their broken promise on student fees, and a “black widow spider”[13] social media campaign by the Tories. The Conservatives won an overall majority. The British people were still not “banging on” about Europe at this stage:


David Cameron announced on 20 February 2016 that the referendum would be held on 23 June 2016.

David Cameron held an EU referendum he and most of his team believed was unnecessary and unwise, in no small part because of the pressure on him and his MPs exerted by Conservative members[15].

The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad swivel-eyed loons[16] [17].

Cameron “lost” the referendum by 51.9% to 48.1% of the vote of the UK “as a whole” and resigned. His successor, Theresa May (a Remainer) said[18]:

The campaign was fought … and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU … and no second referendum … Brexit means Brexit.

At no time in the subsequent process of leaving the EU and negotiating agreements was there consideration of the 48.1% of Remain voters; it was a tyranny of the majority[19] [20].

Referendum Groups

The default in the referendum was the status quo of Remain groups[21]. The onus for change was on Leave groups[22]. The Electoral Commission[23] designated Britain Stronger in Europe[24] as the official Remain group, and Vote Leave[25] as the official Leave group. The self-styled “Bad Boys of Brexit”[26] ran Leave.EU[27]. (Though Arron Banks[28] is given as the author of the subsequent book[29], it was ghost written by Isabel Oakeshott[30].) Both groups were investigated by the Electoral Commission, found to have broken electoral law, and were fined. Nigel Farage[31] of UKIP was a key player for Leave. Major public themes were the cost of the EU, sovereignty, and immigration[32] [33] [34].


Hayek encouraged Antony Fisher to set up a think tank[35]; the result in 1955 was the Institute for Economic Affairs[36]. Despite the neutral sounding name, the aim of the Institute is to disseminate free-market thinking and ideology, and to influence government.

There are now numerous similar right-wing neoliberal think tanks[37]; many are based at 55 Tufton Street[38] [39] [40] [41] in London and the surrounding area. The “Nine Entities”[42] are said to coordinate their activities at alternate Tuesday meetings. They are:

The funding of those highlighted in red is “highly opaque”[43]; this and how they act are outside the remit of the Electoral Commission. In effect they are proxies for political parties.

The Legatum Institute[44], another think tank, played an ambivalent role before the referendum.

Public relations (PR) lobbyists have greatly increased in recent decades. There is a well-established “revolving door” between them, think tanks, and advisers to MPs and ministers, as a career path for ambitious would-be politicians.

Metro[45] is a daily free-sheet distributed in urban conurbations in England, Wales, and Scotland. It is not distributed in N Ireland. Two days before the referendum it carried this four-page wraparound:

Note that “Vote to Leave” is a near replica of “Vote Leave”, the official campaign.

This was paid for by the DUP[46] [47] using part of a donation from the “Constitutional Research Council”, an unincorporated association[48] in Scotland. The ultimate source of the money is unknown, though “Geoghegan contends in Democracy for Sale[49] that the money was channelled to the DUP through the official Vote Leave campaign because Vote Leave had almost used up its permitted spending of £7 million.”[50] [51] So-calledDark Money”[52] where the source is obscure played a significant role in the referendum.

While newspapers remain important reflectors of public opinion, and influence both this and government policy, the Brexit referendum saw a greatly increased significance and use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter particularly by Vote Leave, the official Leave organisation:

In one of his many lengthy post-referendum blog posts, Cummings wrote that Vote Leave “spent 98% of its marketing budget” on Facebook in the final days of the EU referendum. This claim is almost impossible to verify due to the paucity of regulations governing digital politics in Britain, but Cummings certainly put a lot of money and effort into online campaigning. Vote Leave deluged around seven million swing voters with an unprecedented 1.5 billion pro-Brexit videos and messages on Facebook, mainly in the last three or four days of the campaign. “Adverts are more effective the closer to the decision moment they hit the brain,” Cummings later wrote[53] [54].

In the days leading up to the Brexit referendum, around five million voters — most of them in England — received targeted Facebook ads from the DUP. Bright blue and red messages with the party’s lion head logo promised that Brexit would be “better for jobs”, “better for security” and “better for family budgets”. One advert pledged that a Leave vote would be “better for our borders” — oblivious to the difficulties that the Irish border would later pose in Brexit negotiations. This massive social media campaign was run by AggregateIQ, the same analytics firm used by Vote Leave and its surrogates[55].

Cambridge Analytica[56] [57] and AggregateIQ[58] [59] emerged after the referendum as companies used by Vote Leave to identify, categorise, and target voters[60].

In addition to spin the techniques used to influence voters included misinformation, lies[61] [62] and gaslighting[63], a psychological manipulation where a person or a group covertly plants doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment.

Cui Bono?

Who benefits from Brexit? Who really “won” Brexit?

David Cameron presented the referendum as an (1) opportunity for the British people to have their say; his reality was that the referendum was (2) to stifle Eurosceptic dissent in the Tory Party.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove saw it as an opportunity (3) to advance their personal ambitions.

Brexit Ultras saw it as the culmination of many years of advocacy (4) to regain sovereignty, and (5) to promote the Anglosphere and Empire 2.0.

Other players, supported by think tanks and “dark money”, saw the referendum as a chance to achieve their aim of (6) the advancement of their neoliberal libertarian ideas in the UK beyond the limitations, regulations, and inhibitions of the EU. And (7) to escape potential EU regulations on tax havens[64] [65] [66].

In 2017, The Legatum Institute was said to have “written the hymn sheet for a Dirty Brexit”:

The open secret that Brexit is more about financial and environmental deregulation than immigration is confirmed by a … briefing for City slickers[67].

In 2021, Brexit was described as “a machine to generate perpetual grievance”:

The story of plucky Britain standing up to bullying Brussels spares leavers the discomfort of admitting they voted for a con[68].

My thanks to SeaánUiNeill for his critique and to Brian O’Neill for his technical assistance.

You can read part one here…

  13. Peter Geoghegan (2020) Democracy for Sale p191
  42. The Nine Entities is a reference to Jehovah and his sons and daughters:
  49. Peter Geoghegan (2020); op cit Chapter 4
  53. Peter Geoghegan (2020); op cit p38
  55. Peter Geoghegan (2020) op cit p88
  60. Peter Geoghegan (2020) op cit Chapter 7
  61. Peter Oborne (2021); The Assault on Truth

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