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Mon 17 June 2019
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Oliver Norgrove, a former Nigel Farage admirer and Vote Leave staffer, explains how Brexit broke itself on the back of ‘grotesque simplifications’.

Like so many others, my intertwining with Brexit began with Nigel Farage. I remember watching him in person and on YouTube as an 18-year-old, just as my political journey was starting to take shape.

What aided Farage most was his ability to articulate simple solutions to incredibly complex problems.

Mr Farage was the first political figure to really inspire me. I was energised and sprung into action by him in a way that nobody else has since managed. I considered him – and still do to this day – to be an extraordinary orator, and somebody who could not only make the case for Leaving, but in the process relate to the people he was talking to. He appeared to me a cultural outlier in elite circles, even if his educational and professional background suggested otherwise.

What aided Farage most was his ability to articulate simple solutions to incredibly complex problems. He became so good at it that many of his answers turned quite organically into slogans. This had a major effect on people like me, because not only was he able to paint a patriotic and optimistic vision for Brexit, he provided activists with memorable and easily deployed arguments for use in general debate.  

The Problem with Slogans

The fact that Mr Farage relied on short, sharp and simple responses made him appear intellectually infallible, even if what he said was suspect in terms of its content.

On some level, the boiled-down, simplification of the issues made me remarkably naive but absurdly over-confident in my approach to arguing for leaving the EU.

The arguments turned Brexit into a more easily digestible, every-day snapshot: ‘They need us more than we need them’ making an analogy to the German car industry analogy; ‘Even in the worst case scenario, we’d be better off than we are now’ with reference to a comparison of tariff schedules based on the ‘they sell us more than we sell them’ point.

On some level, the boiled-down, simplification of the issues made me remarkably naive but absurdly over-confident in my approach to arguing for leaving the EU.

Nigel Farage enjoys a pint in Shoreham, West Sussex during a walkabout ahead of the Brexit Party rally at Brighton City Airport.

But, as time and negotiations progressed, and as more of the technical details became apparent, I started to realise that so many Faragist predictions and pronouncements just weren’t materialising.

The more I learned, for instance, about the mechanics of trade and WTO law, the more I recognised the complete untruth in so much of what had been said.

GATT Article XXIV was not going to provide for a no deal transition. The economic forecasts, increased red tape burden and the response of many businesses to looming third country status prove that we wouldn’t be better off in the worst case scenario than we are now. Most UK trade was not conducted under solely WTO rules. And there was no such thing as a ‘world trade deal’.

The Jaws of Reality

Brexit has been nothing if not an immense learning curve.

Pretty uniquely in the Brexit debate, I have experienced a good flavour of three distinct divisions within the Leave movement: UKIP, Vote Leave and the assorted ‘Liberal Leave’ campaigns, all of which unite around protecting our membership of the single market. I believe that this has enriched my analytical perspective on many of the issues surrounding the UK’s EU withdrawal.

Farage’s grotesque simplifications… and the almost religious evasion of detail were never going to prepare us for our departure.

The outright lies and failure to deal adequately with policy details will go down in history as the Leave side’s most prominent sore. Leaving the European Union is a mammoth legal, technical and constitutional task which cannot be orchestrated according to the whims of the political sloganeering we saw in the 2016 referendum. The jaws of reality, it turns out, cannot be avoided indefinitely.

To some extent, I should have had greater foresight and viewed the withdrawal issues through a more critical lens. But then again, this could be said of almost anybody invested in Brexit. Farage’s grotesque simplifications, parroted by individuals uninterested in complexity, and the almost religious evasion of detail were never going to prepare us for our departure. It is here where history will truly judge him.

With last week’s launch of the new Brexit Party, Nigel Farage has set about re-packaging the core of Brexit support. He says he wants to bring back trust to the political climate, changing our politics ‘for good’. I say he should start with a small measure of self-reflection. He should start by fixing himself.  

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