More than two months after a majority of voters decided that Britain should withdraw from the European Union, the architect of the “leave” movement has a message for economists who predicted the result would cause economic chaos.
“I think the economists have been proven massively wrong,” says Matthew Elliott, the CEO of Vote Leave, the official campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
Elliott, speaking in Washington last week, ticked off positive economic indicators since the June 23 “Brexit” vote, including a rebounding stock market, reduced unemployment rate, and surging housing prices.
But it is certainly early to celebrate, Elliott acknowledges: Britain hasn’t yet begun the process of negotiating its release from the European Union, and the British currency, the pound, has suffered a steep fall.
As he revels in the moment, the 38-year-old Elliott, a veteran strategist of successful political campaigns, was also in a reflective mood in a Wednesday interview with The Daily Signal.
As British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government plan the withdrawal from the European Union, thinking over the best way to position a new Britain on the issues of trade, immigration, and finance, Elliott says it’s important to remember why he says the “leave” campaign won.
Specifically, Elliott is determined to refute what he calls a “myth” surrounding his group—that he and other “leave” proponents tried to make the Brexit vote a referendum on immigration, an emotional topic that has roiled the electorate in other Western countries, including the U.S.
“This wasn’t a rejection of all migration,” Elliott told The Daily Signal. “Had it just been about migration we would have only gotten 30 percent of the vote. So we reached beyond that core base of people who would be attracted by the angry populist message.”
“We are stepping out of Europe and into the world,” says @matthew_elliott.
Indeed, Elliott says the “leave” campaign could not win without attracting the support of swing voters, a middle group of people of various political stripes who needed convincing to vote to exit the European Union.
“The key point was voters didn’t want to feel that by voting ‘leave,’ it was some sort of backward step, that it was pulling up the drawbridge or going back in time to the 1950s,” Elliott said. “It was actually a forward-looking thing to do, that we are actually stepping out of Europe and into the world. We are going to be a global player, but a global player standing on our own two feet.”
Here is the entirety of The Daily Signal’s interview with Elliott, produced in a question-and-answer format and edited for style, length, and clarity.
The Daily Signal: How did you evaluate the state of the British electorate when you started Vote Leave?
Elliott: The polling in the beginning was quite consistent in the sense that a third of people wanted to leave, a third of people wanted to remain, and that middle third basically didn’t really like the EU, wanted to see if [then-Prime Minister] David Cameron could reform it, and if he could not reform it, they’d be open to leaving provided the economic consequences weren’t too great.
So we were really, really working on that middle third of voters, reassuring them leave was the safer option—that the risks of remain outweighed the risks of leaving.
Q: What was your strategy to win over that middle group, those who were not sure what to do?
A: When we looked at the electorate, there were various groups who weren’t so much on our side.
For example, younger voters tended to be more on the “remain” side, and we would point out to them that actually Britain leaving the EU allows us to be more internationalist and more global. And actually, those younger voters were not really pro-EU. They just had a pro-internationalist sentiment. So once they were reassured that actually we too have a international vision, a lot more came over to us.
You had other people like farmers, for example, who get subsidies from the European Union, and we were reassuring them that were Britain to leave, they would continue to get agricultural subsidies to help keep them going.
We really tried to focus on different groups and address their concerns and explain to them how leaving was a better option. And then more generally we took on what was called Project Fear, which was the government campaign to try to say it would be disastrous to leave the EU, and [we tried] to explain how that wouldn’t come to pass.
Q: So what actually changes with an independent Britain?
A: I think the key point is where laws are made. So this result was about our slogan: “Take back control.” That was really take back control over lawmaking, deciding who is allowed into the country to work, and what have you.
So the key point is basically we now will have a system where the people we elect to Parliament will be the people who determine our future, rather than a situation where we are currently in, where 60 percent of our laws are actually made in Brussels.
Q: What kind of change were people looking for and why do you think a majority of Britons wanted change?
A: From a U.S. point of view, imagine a context where you had a parliament that covered all of the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] countries, which had regulatory powers that basically dictated 60 percent of the laws in the U.S.
Imagine a situation where your Supreme Court, rather than being here in D.C., was based in Mexico with Mexican judges and yes, you have some Canadian and American judges as well, but also judges who weren’t American.
This is the situation the U.K. is in at the moment. Where we have a European parliament and essentially a European government in the European Commission and the ultimate legal authority is the European Court of Justice. So essentially, what we are doing is taking back control and reasserting our sovereignty in the country and our right to govern and decide our future ourselves.
Q: What was your message to the electorate on immigration, and what was your strategy to win on that issue?
A: If you look at the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is the only party publicly supporting Brexit, their ceiling as a party has always been about 30 percent in the European elections, so it usually polls much less than that in general elections.
So we knew we needed to build on the people who were generally supportive of UKIP. In order to get over the magic 50 percent mark, we needed to build a coalition which went beyond those UKIP voters.
Now, if you look at the electorate at large, there are people who are accepting of migration. They just want a situation where it’s the government who decides who is able to come to the U.K. to work rather than it being an open border to anyone in the EU and virtually a closed border to people outside of the EU.
Those people in the swing voting constituency as well didn’t want to feel they were voting UKIP by voting leave. They wanted to hear senior conservatives, senior labor people, liberal Democrats, Green Party supporters, all making the leave message as well.
So we presented them with those kinds of spokespeople.
I think the key point was voters didn’t want to feel that by voting leave, it was some sort of backward step, that it was pulling up the drawbridge or going back in time to the 1950s.
It was actually a forward-looking thing to do, that we are actually stepping out of Europe and into the world. We are going to be a global player, but a global player standing on our own two feet and being a self-governing country rather than being part of a regional, protectionist trade bloc, which is a very outdated way of governing things.
Q: So this wasn’t an anti-immigration message and strategy?
A: What was necessary was to make sure that we got over the 50 percent mark. And actually, if you look at the electorate at large, people didn’t want zero immigration. That’s a real myth about the campaign.
People wanted a smarter immigration policy, one which was controlled by the government, one where they could make sure we had people with the right skills and right experience coming to live and work in the U.K., rather than having a completely open door to people living in the EU and a closed door to people outside the EU.
I think that message of a smarter, more controlled immigration policy was one which was able to get us over the mark. This wasn’t a rejection of all migration.
Q: Would you have won with only an immigration-centered message, or did you have to expand the message to get broad enough support?
A: Had it just been about migration we would have only gotten 30 percent of the vote. That’s why we made sure we had that broad spectrum of support. We made sure we had an outreach program to make sure we had people of different ethnic minority communities supporting the campaign, and explaining how “leave” would benefit them.
So we reached beyond that core base of people who would be attracted by the angry populist message.
Q: It’s been two months since the Brexit vote. How would you evaluate the position of Britain right now?
A: I think we are in a very strong position. [New Prime Minister] Theresa May has made the right move of not outlining all the details of what she thinks should be part of the Brexit negotiations before she has certain things in place.
So, for example, we needed to set up two new ministries: a department for international trade and a department for leaving the European Union. They needed to be set up. They needed to be staffed.
Now we are doing a big consultation exercise making sure the different sectors that will be affected by Britain leaving have been talked to, so the government understands what their concerns are, understands the concerns of the wider public and the leave voters in particular.
And then, from the new year, we will probably be in a position where the new government can start the formal negotiation process.
So I think what she has done is smart and very much in line with what certainly the Vote Leave campaign was hoping [to achieve] out of the negotiations.
Q: So far, why has the Brexit vote not resulted in dire consequences to the British economy, as many predicted would happen?
A: If you look at it, there’s a coalition of vested interests who like the status quo and are resistant to change, and this coalition basically backed up Project Fear.
Be it the multinational companies who don’t want a radical change like Brexit, or be it different investment banks who are comfortable with the existing situation, or be it many politicians who didn’t want to see Brexit through and wanted to focus on other priorities.
There was a collection of vested interests who wanted Britain to remain in the EU, and they felt the way they could do it was to scare people by saying that leaving would be a calamity for the economy.
But voters didn’t buy the idea that the U.K—the fifth-largest economy in the world, an economy that imports more from the EU than it exports—wouldn’t be able to survive on its own.
Q: Would you describe Brexit as a win for conservative ideas? What message would you have for conservative politicians and policymakers in the U.S.?
A: I would actually disagree with the premise of the question, in the sense that this vote was about taking back control.
It’s then up to the population and electorate about what sort of government they vote for. They might decide in the next general election to vote for [Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
And if they do, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies is to nationalize the railway system. At the moment, with Britain inside the EU, he is actually not allowed to nationalize the railway system.
So actually, by taking back control, he could do that.
So we shouldn’t just assume it will lead to a center-right or conservative shift in policy. The key point is who decides. And that will be the electorate.