The United Kingdom’s vote last year to leave the European Union was a seismic event. The British people ignored the advice of the leaders of all their major political parties and of virtually all experts. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, told voters that leaving would wreck the British economy. U.S. President Barack Obama warned that it would reduce the United Kingdom’s influence on the world stage. Financial markets, many pollsters, and political pundits all anticipated that voters would heed the elites’ advice. And yet they decided not to, setting off a process destined to transform the country’s politics, economy, and society.
No wonder, then, that the referendum has generated a rash of books seeking to explain, or at least describe, what happened. The pace of academic publishing means that most of those that have already appeared are quick and dirty accounts by journalists or politicians and their advisers. Among these, two stand out: Unleashing Demons, by Craig Oliver, who worked as Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of communications, and All Out War, by the journalist Tim Shipman.
These two books tell the story of Brexit in different ways. Oliver has drawn heavily on his diaries to produce an account of one part of the Remain side, whereas Shipman offers an exhaustive history of the campaign as a whole. But both are elite histories, focusing on the words and deeds of political leaders rather than the details of the ground operations or the reasons why over 33 million people voted the way they did. The doings of the elites certainly mattered. Cameron’s team made huge errors when it came to immigration policy, messaging, and the decision to hold the referendum in the first place. Yet because both Oliver and Shipman focus on elites and on a fairly brief period, essentially from the start of 2016 to the vote on June 23, they largely ignore the longer-term trends that produced the vote to leave: rising distrust of politicians
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