National Security & Defense

Brexit after Obama

President Obama takes questions in London, April 22, 2016. (Andy Rain/Reuters)
He came, he saw, he went. But did he conquer?

The first opinion-poll results on President Obama’s intervention in the Brexit debate since he left London for Germany and the EU summit have now been published. They show two things of interest: a small movement toward the Leave campaign, and a clear majority of voters who disapproved of the president’s intervention.

Of four polls, all four shifted toward Leave, by between one and four percentage points. That still left Remain ahead in two polls, and Leave in the other two (but by smaller numbers, in or close to the margin of error). Probably the fairest interpretation is that Remain is slightly ahead but Leave is closing a small gap and that Obama helped to close it further.

Disapproval of Obama’s intervention is far clearer, however. Majorities of 55 and 60 percent were critical. This popular response was expressed in a cartoon of Obama seated opposite the Queen at a Palace dining table, saying airily, “She’ll have the fish” — as the Queen winces and the butler staggers back in horror.

But Obama is popular in Britain, and this reaction was not very harsh. It seems to have focused on his arrogance in telling the Brits that if they left the EU and wanted a separate U.S.-U.K. trade deal, they would have to go to the back of “the queue.” That word is a Britishism that commentators immediately cited as evidence that the speech had been written in Downing Street. It wasn’t personal arrogance so much as calculated pressure from both governments.

RELATED: Brexit and the Meddlesome Mr. Obama

That episode illustrates one of the oddest elements in this referendum campaign. Though it’s quite common in modern politics (see Trump, passim) for outsiders and dissidents to denounce the overwhelming influence of “elites” or “establishments,” this is a rare occasion when the elites and establishments boast about it themselves.

One after another, various national and international bodies step forward to warn darkly about the dangers that lurk in Brexit.

One after another, various national and international bodies — the OECD, Scientists Against Brexit, the G20, the IMF — step forward to warn darkly about the dangers that lurk in Brexit, after which Downing Street or the Remain campaign points out how important these bodies are and how we must take their advice. Day after day this argument from authority is deployed with a surprising blatancy, as if its authors were unaware that the argumentum ad verecundiam was identified by John Locke as an intellectual fallacy if it is advanced to support something controversial. You can’t legitimately say “experts say” if other experts say the opposite — as they do about Brexit.

Indeed, much of the time these authority-mongers are asserting things that are obviously absurd, demonstrably false, or reliant on highly dubious figures. Brexit will not mean the abolition of cheap air fares, for instance; that is absurd. Nor will it mean losses of income for the average family on anything like the scales — the estimates differ wildly — predicted by the various official authorities.

One of the most egregious examples occurred in an official Treasury document. This predicted a fall in the average family income of 4,300 pounds (about $6,800) by 2030. This figure was arrived at by guesstimating Britain’s GDP for that year, dividing that GDP estimate by the numbers in the population today rather than in 2030, and then guesstimating how much lower it might be if Brexit happened.

RELATED: Obama to Brits: America Expects

This looked odd and its consequences even odder. As hawk-eyed critics soon discovered, estimates of future GDP in 2030 were based on rises in immigration that exceeded the government’s targets in every single intervening year. They deprived those who were either born or who immigrated to the U.K. between now and 2030 of any incomes at all, since the Treasury’s method had statistically redistributed them to families living today.

Now, however you slice it, this kind of argument is baloney. Indeed, even honest attempts at estimating how Brexit will raise or reduce incomes years ahead are likely to prove correct only by accident. As the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont (who favors Brexit) said, economists add decimal points to their estimates “to show they have a sense of humor.” And in almost all these scare stories, the estimated losses are vaporized by media criticisms within a day or two.

So why is it that the Remain campaign uses them almost to the exclusion of any other appeal? One reason is plain enough: If people are persuaded that Brexit will cost them significant sums of money, they’ll have a strong incentive to vote against it. But the other reason is that they don’t have any other issues.

#share#Consider what the Remainians are not raising in the campaign. No one ever mentions the “EU reform package” that David Cameron brought back from Brussels. Yet it was supposed to make all the difference between an un-reformed EU that Cameron would oppose and a bright new Union that he could sincerely endorse. Cameron apparently believed he had achieved this objective or at least that he could persuade the voters of that. Within a few days of his return, however, everyone could see that his reforms were utterly trivial and changed nothing. No one could argue otherwise with a straight face. The reform package has now been firmly dropped down the memory hole.

RELATED: Brexit Plan? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Plan!

Another disappearing issue is security. Cameron first thought, reasonably enough, that security would be a second strong issue to add to the economic one to make up a broad campaign. He produced a list of generals who said that the EU was vital for Britain’s security. Whereupon one general denied that he had signed the joint letter, another claimed that he had been pressured to do so, and a third wrote an eloquent article in the Daily Telegraph (a military stronghold) arguing that the EU was actually an obstacle to U.K. security and to NATO, which was Britain’s real security blanket. Sporadic firing continued for some time, but the NATO-ists gained the upper hand, and it was recently leaked that Downing Street had reluctantly accepted that the security issue had been a dud for them.

The sovereignty issue is still playing well, however – but for the Leavers. Government attempts to argue that the U.K. enjoyed more “real” sovereignty because it had one-28th of the EU’s decision-making authority, and thus power, was never persuasive. It suffered a death blow when another former chancellor, Nigel Lawson, pointed out that on all the 72 occasions when an issue was voted on in the EU Council of Ministers, Britain had been outvoted every time. Now, the Remainians avoid the issue and, when that proves impossible, talk very quickly, using very long words.

RELATED: Will Britain Leave the European Union or Remain In It?

In addition to forcing the Remain camp to concentrate on economic scare stories, the disappearance of these issues — which were essentially aimed at winning over Tory voters – has had the unexpected effect of compelling Cameron ministers to rely on Labour voters to save the day for them. It makes a kind of sense, since the Labour party collectively is keener than Tories on the EU. But the Labour EU campaign has been inert so far, and the trade unions had given only small sums to finance a livelier one.

Cameron’s Remain campaign is unashamedly an establishment effort.

So the media revealed on April 28 that the government will now withdraw key provisions in its union-reform legislation, including the requirement of the majority of a 50 percent minimum vote to legitimize a strike. These provisions were in the Tory manifesto, and had thus received democratic approval. But they have been sacrificed to the labor unions in return for their promise to spend much more money on a campaign to stir up their members and other Labour supporters against the Tory threat of Brexit.

Once such deals took place in private sanctums. Today they occur in full public view. Tory voters will know of this as much as Labour ones — maybe more, since a media exclusive usually gets to be better known than a campaign of hoardings and leaflets. So it matters how well the elites share the reactions of those outside the magic circles, how well they judge how others are likely to react to events. How well, for instance, did they judge the impact of the Obama visit?

#related#Reporter Paul Waugh, writing for the U.K. Huffington Post, described, as follows, the scene as Obama spoke: “The second he said it, you could feel the air in the room change. Barack Obama’s warning that Brexit would mean ‘the U.K. is going to be at the back of the queue’ of America’s trade priorities was as brutal as it was effective. And the sharp intake of breath from the gathered press pack, greeted by the knowingly satisfied smiles of Downing Street aides, was proof that the president had delivered and delivered in spades.”

Except, of course, that the air in other rooms had remained cool and even got cooler.

Cameron’s Remain campaign is unashamedly an establishment effort. The clubbish self-satisfaction, caught beautifully by Waugh above, was an establishment reaction to the president’s playing a skillful part in Cameron’s campaign. As Paul Goodman on the Conservative Home website commented, those in the scene fantasized for a blissful moment that they were appearing in The West Wing.

But the canny audience was watching Yes, Prime Minister.


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