Why the vitriol?

9 June 2016

Every four years, the Yanks like to tell themselves that the current presidential election is the dirtiest ever. Not so: each is as dirty as the last (though mind you, this time the distinguished nominees could easily prove me wrong). By contrast, British electioneering is conducted as though between Socrates and Aristotle, with an ethereal disregard of personalities and Olympian devotion to what that old rogue, Tony Benn, used to call “ishoos”. How different the Brexit campaign, with its histrionics, hyperbole and raw emotion. Why such vitriol? what’s going on?

As best I can tell, the elevated temperature has much to do with the Outers’ strategic appreciation. This would make it simplistic to see their recent forays as narrowly high road (Gove) and low road (Farage). On my read, they have been letting appearances conceal an operation to set the style of the campaign, reverse the Inners’ central strengths and lure their antagonists into errors. It seems to be making headway, with the polls (but not the bookies' odds) continuing to show a weak lead for the Outers.

The Remain camp’s plans to win are no secret: big up fears about the economy and field distinguished endorsers. The Outers’ ostensible response has been questionable claims on Boris’s battle-bus, plus assorted populism like NHS top-ups and refugees’ rape-sprees. But these have lured the Inners into populisms of their own: peace at risk, house prices down, mortgages up. This reduces debate to a bun-fight from which voters recoil. In addition, when the Outers stigmatise the Treasury’s figures and Obama’s warning as Project Fear, cry foul about purdah and budgets, make much of comfy insiders, their scrappiness has the effect of closing in on other objectives, more oblique and more precious.

Most of all (and at risk of repetition of my last), the force of any argument from authority is undermined. This has particularly weakened the Inners’ most effective campaigner, the Prime Minister himself. In addition, equally hyperbolic claims by the Outers become less out of the way. Even if few believe them, they raise the temperature, serving other purposes of the Outers. We see this when we turn to the Inners’ responses to sallies from the Leave camp, with Boris in particular getting good mileage from his way with controversy. His extravagances have drawn out Heseltine to go after the closest figure the campaign offers to a national treasure as “preposterous, obscene” and Major to weigh in with “squalid, deceitful”. This feels ill-judged: the two elder statesmen speak to Tories of how to put it? a certain age. But this group is already committed to the Outers , with few undecideds left. Meanwhile youngsters still on the fence see Boris as beset by fuddy-duddies, making it less of a stretch to rally to him.

The elevated temperature also holds out the prospect of other prizes to the Outers. Labour voters are given reason to dismiss the referendum as a Tory squabble. As this group divides two to one for the Inners , keeping them home works wonders. And to a lesser extent, so too women (of late evenly split , but anecdotally more susceptible to a flight to safety), as they shrink from the yah-boo character of a boys’ only game and contemplate staying home themselves. Apparent coups by the Inners - a defection here, an endorsement there - do nothing to cool the temperature while the Outers remain at liberty to raise it further, keeping the kettle on the boil.

Finally, to revert to the acuity of rolling out a “points-system” solution to border-control: so rational, so fair, so much endorsed by the so admirable Aussies. This gives permission to vote the issue to those worried about immigration but unwilling to see themselves as racist. It also puts them in the mood to ponder self-determination, where no-one understands the Inners’ “pooled sovereignty” and few doubt that Cameron came back from Brussels with a lemon.

Will this work? I remain cautious, particularly looking out for that late swing to safety and a last-ditch Euro love-bomb, but you know what? We’re back with a horse race.