Failure to Remain

Guest post:

Matthew Cotton is a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield, researching public and stakeholder participation in environmental planning decisions, social and ethical issues relating to the governance of technological risk. He will be moving the University of York in 2016.

In my first (and likely last) post to the FORETHOUGHT blog before I leave for pastures new, I thought I would offer some reflections on the recent referendum decision to leave the European Union.

Like other supporters of the Remain campaign I went to sleep on the evening of Thursday 23rd of June, comforting myself with the knowledge that although the Leave campaign had gained in the polls, there was still a margin of undecided voters. Undecided voters stick with the status quo, right? So I crossed my fingers, watched the early results come in and lost no sleep. In the morning it’ll be a thin margin of victory I told myself. The country will be divided, but we have time to sort that out whilst getting on with the business of real politics. Tomorrow we can fix the NHS, fix the climate, and fight the rising tight of anti-immigration with the healing power of European solidarity (or something).

That the result was not what I expected or hoped for is a moot point now. Both sides of the House of Commons are in disarray, Jeremy Corbyn MP is under fire, Nigel Farage MEP is crowing his triumph in the European Parliament, and the Conservative leadership contest gets off to a shaky start. The task of choosing a new leader to corral Parliament into triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will no doubt dominate news headlines for the next three months. Yet from my small corner of academia, I am concerned by the way in which the Remain campaign structured its message, the types of actors that became involved and the types of evidence used to convince the electorate of the relative value of European Union membership. That this strategy failed has much broader implications for future political campaigns, not least of which is that emerging on the other side of The Atlantic, as Donald Trump rides a wave of anti-immigration sentiment in the US Presidential race.


(Image courtesy of

Political and media commentary on Brexit has bloomed, but the consensus seems to be that Remain failed to capture the political imagination through a positive vision of future European Union membership, allowing the Leave campaign to successfully label it Project Fear: a cautious appeal to the safety of the status quo. In academic terms we can understand this as an issue of “framing” – a process by which individuals interpret outside messages. Different frames emphasise different elements of the evidence within a political debate. In Remain’s case it was economic uncertainty, a political history of peacetime expansion and trust in the advice of experts. In Leave’s case it was stemming uncontrolled economic migration, reclaiming ‘sovereignty’ (note the inverted commas) and the financial waste of EU membership. The Leave campaign’s framing of ‘Taking Back Control’ was clearly more effective than ‘Stronger Together’ – the former a message of autonomous empowerment and the latter a message of safety in numbers. The Remain campaign sought to bolster its message by lining up an ever-growing list of economic and political heavyweights (the CBI, Bank of England, IMF, OECD, US President Barrack Obama, senior military advisers, the list goes on) and pushing as much of this information and expert opinion (economic forecasts, recession warnings, emergency budgets) into the public realm in a more or less haphazard way.

This communication strategy was based upon two assumptions. First, that the political institutions charged with ensuring political and economic stability were perceived as trustworthy by the electorate, and second, that the facts and figures would be understood in the spirit in which the originators of the message intended: that dire warnings based upon evidence would sufficiently motivate voters to stick with the safe option. However, I am reminded of two things that I have learned in my work in other areas of political engagement (specifically regarding environmental issues). The first is from the now classic work from Brian Wynne (1996) “May the Sheep Safely Graze” on the reflexivity of lay knowledge and scientific expertise. Wynne noted that when citizens encounter (in this case economic) scientific information they interpret this through an interpretive cultural lens of other ‘local knowledges’, thus the abstract and rather distant notion of national economic performance is interpreted in the Brexit vote through individual perceptions of an inherently local political and economic situation (which for many working class communities can mean migrant competition in local job and housing markets).  The second is from a paper by Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Day (nee Nicholson-Cole) (2009) about communicating climate change. Their paper is called ‘Fear Won’t Do It’ – arguing that engaging heterogeneous publics with climate change cannot be based upon fear alone. Making people afraid raises their awareness of the issue at hand, but likely encourages disengagement rather than active engagement with the message and its intended outcomes.

The lessons from this are twofold. The first is that like in Wynne’s work and numerous subsequent studies of what is often termed ‘the deficit model’ of communication, it is naïve to assume that the transmission of information from expert to lay citizen will necessarily encourage the receivers of that information to think the same way as the transmitter. The economic forecasts, dire warnings and predictions clearly did not have the intended effect. When Leave campaigner Michael Gove MP stood up and declared “people are sick of experts” it seems he was right. The message of Remain became largely technocratic – the numbers say we should stay: trust the numbers and trust the communicators of those numbers. The Leave campaign by contrast needed only a few numbers – the £350 million per week that we could send to the NHS plastered on the side of their battle bus was enough, however spurious that number was. The underlying consistency or accuracy of the numbers was not a key voting consideration because the electorate did not trust the communicators of numbers. The second lesson seems to be that just enough fear is enough. Fear of immigration, fear of loss of control, fear of an alien Brussels railroading your sovereignty. But it wasn’t just fear, unlike the Remain camp the fear was balanced against a message of renewal, of power reclaimed, and of ‘ordinary decent people’ taking back control. Within that “frame” Leave presented both the problem and the solution – that fear of the EU was the cause and Brexit is a positive action to be ‘free’ from such fear. Remain just left us afraid, however well justified those fears might be.


O’Neill, S. & S. Nicholson-Cole (2009) “Fear Won’t Do It”: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations. Science Communication, 30, 355-379.

Wynne, B. 1996. May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide. In Risk, Environment and Modernity, ed. S. Lash, Szerszynski, B., Wynne, B. London: Sage Publications.