Did Putin do Brexit to us?

A front page from the Daily Mail with the headline "As numbers break all records ... Migrants: How many more can we take?".
Front page from the Daily Mail in August 2015

In the years since the Brexit referendum in 2016, it has become fashionable among Remainers to blame the result on manipulation. While the racist and xenophobic motives were plain from some of their advertisements (like the one claiming Turkey was joining, which it is not), it also transpired that people were targeted with advertisements on Facebook that appealed to their likely prejudices. It’s been reported that some of the financiers behind the Leave campaign had links to Russian oligarchs or embassy officials and also that Russian trolls and bots were behind a lot of pro-Leave misinformation during the campaign. The result is that a myth has grown up that the result was entirely the result of Russian interference and the referendum would have gone the other way but for it. I am not convinced.

My view is that the effect of disinformation and of the dirty advertising campaigns at most tipped the scales in favour of Leave. The vote was already in the balance and this was the result of two things. One was a long-running campaign of propaganda against the EU by the right-wing corporate media which had continually portrayed the EU as both a threat to British national sovereignty and a source of ridiculous nuisance legislation, regulating such things as what shape cucumbers could be sold in shops. Newspapers and politicians continually promoted the idea that the EU was a plot for German domination of Europe and that we would be sucked into a European ‘superstate’ or “United States of Europe” that we would not be able to extricate ourselves from. The collapse of federations in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia seemed to add weight to those ideas, irrespective of the fact that those federations were not democratic, nor made up of democracies. More recently, Tory politicians and press have railed against the Human Rights Act, a law which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law; they portray this as nothing more than an obstacle to “getting things done” when that means an ‘undesirable’ being locked up or kicked out of the country. In fact, the ECHR has nothing to do with the EU and protects innocent people as well, among them people with learning disabilities trapped in hospitals.

The other factor was the influx of migrant workers from eastern Europe in 2004 following those countries’ accession to the EU. Other EU countries did not allow this; when weaker economies are admitted to the EU, their workers are not allowed to freely work in pre-existing member countries for a few years. Blair decided he was above listening to people, however, and allowed them to freely live and work here. I have mentioned the problems with this policy before; no doubt many of the people who objected were racist, but it did result in a reorientation of industry towards using cheap and often temporary foreign labour, some of which was not even advertised in English. Blair, despite relying on the votes of working-class people in former heavy industrial constituencies such as his own on Tyneside (many of which defected to the Tories in 2019), failed to rejuvenate British industry and provide meaningful jobs for those dumped on the scrapheap by Thatcher. As a result, the EU was blamed and large sections of the working class voted to leave. They did not need any Russian-based disinformation campaign on Facebook to persuade them that the EU was the reason they were out of work, or at best had seen only banal, low-paid work without prospects available to them for decades. (The press, meanwhile, presented the issue as a threat, depicting it as a migrant ‘invasion’ and, like politicians, making no distinction between EU and non-EU migration.)

It’s true that much of this was in fact the result of British policy and was not forced on us by the EU, but all the same, this had been inflicted and then maintained by governments who supported British membership for the trade advantages rather than any ideals about cultural enrichment. While it’s understandable that some people on Twitter overseas do not know about the history, it’s sad that many British people who have lived in the country all their lives and seen all this forget that there were real issues and not just racism, stupidity or disinformation behind that vote. So for anyone who wants to tell me to “go read Carole Cadwalladr” if I have any doubt about the Russian effect: I’ve read the Observer, the paper she writes in, since I was a teenager. I respect her for looking into the dirty campaign and the Russian connection. But it’s not the whole story. Much as it’s tempting to blame Putin for everything, we can’t. While it’s true that the result was convenient for him, the Russian role in actually making it happen was at most limited.

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