Rhetoric of excess

Arguments were centre-stage for the entire Referendum campaign. Its rhetorical purpose could not have been clearer: to supply good reasons for voting either to leave the EU or to remain. With a simple choice made by a single constituency, party loyalty or local concerns were not overt factors. The Leave campaign was tasked with promoting grounds to transform the status quo; the Remain camp had to supply sufficient doubt against such a change. Nor were their arguments especially new: they had been rehearsed for years and were largely familiar to the public.

The rhetoric of the referendum was rarely inventive or inspirational. There were strong arguments on either side but often the debate felt exaggerated and shrill. Focused on the excesses of others, neither side won the argument decisively.

Yet for all its simplicity of purpose, the Referendum’s rhetoric was divisive and, on occasion, rather uncivil. The length of the campaign meant the same arguments were repeated ad nauseam and efforts to censure each other’s fallacies, exaggerations, inaccuracies, unfair advantages, or personal attacks inevitably came to the fore. Personalities and deeply held feelings would be as important (if not more so) than rational arguments as either side fought to ridicule the other’s claims and ensure their own advantage. Ultimately, argumentative appeals were directed not at forging common understanding or reconciliation but at forcing a decision on an issue of enduring ambivalence. In such circumstances, the contest often came down to either side amplifying the intolerable excesses of the other’s arguments.

The challenge for the Leave campaign was to promote a substantial alteration in the UK’s economic and political status without conceding the possibility of instability or disadvantage in international standing. Exit from the EU, it argued, would permit Britons enhanced autonomy over policy, freedom from arbitrary political interference, and greater control of economic resources. The difficulty in this argument lay in its speculative nature: much depended on the outcome of future trade negotiations whose success could not be guaranteed. Nor could Leave decide which model of non-EU existence it would prefer (Norwegian, Icelandic or Swiss models?). In the end, the strength of Leave’s argument lay in the purported self-evidence of its premise — that the EU restricted the UK’s capacity to succeed on its own. The apparent excesses of the EU were therefore stressed. Membership reduced national sovereignty, imposed disproportionate legal controls, was run by unelected bureaucrats, and disregarded national borders to permit vast numbers of immigrants to enter Britain to take jobs and enjoy welfare benefits.

This demonisation of the EU lent itself to a negative pathos, often in conspiratorial arguments that captured some supporters but alienated others. The different personalities associated with the campaign each had their own take on this appeal to emotions. Michael Gove employed the analogy of a kidnapping, where the innocent UK was held hostage in the back of a car. Boris Johnson used the well-worn trope of Nazism to describe the geopolitical ambitions of the EU. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, offered the more vulgar gesture in alluding to the prospect of sexually predatory migrants. One way or another the EU was rhetorically associated with a dangerous excess; departure was thereby presented as the restoration of a mythic integrity (captured by the UKIP slogan: ‘We want our country back’).

Remain, on the other hand, was burdened with defending a status quo to which few felt enormous attachment. Its arguments concerned primarily the economic utility of continued membership: the benefits of the single market; the rights, freedoms and international status that ensued; and the distinctive ‘opt outs’ that assured British independence. For Remain, EU membership enhanced (not diminished) sovereignty and supported (not restricted) autonomy; any disadvantages were mere inconveniences. Its case lacked the excitement of challenging the prevailing order and offered no ambitious vision of further improvements to the EU. Much of the Remain position relied on dull ‘factual’ evidence of expert opinion: from the Treasury, the Bank of England, economists, business leaders, as well as US President Obama. The argument (denounced as ‘project fear’) rested on an appeal to cautious, sensible pragmatism and the public’s aversion to risk.

The greatest risk, argued Remain, came from Leave’s reckless excess in opposing so-called ‘ruling elites’, distorting truths, and mobilising unpleasant sentiments against immigrants. Leave proponents, it claimed, were prepared to lie about how much was contributed to the EU, how ordinary people would benefit from leaving it, and how the UK could recover from the shocking effects of withdrawal on jobs and house prices. For Remain, departure would provoke a veritable economic Apocalypse. Moreover, Leave’s advocates were less than sincere in their ambitions for the UK given, for instance, Farage’s ‘dog whistle’ appeals to prejudice or Johnson’s political ambitions. For Remain, Leave’s arguments were risky delusions promoted by untrustworthy characters.

The rhetoric of the referendum was rarely inventive or inspirational. There were strong arguments on either side but often the debate felt exaggerated and shrill. Focused on the excesses of others, neither side won the argument decisively.