EU Referendum Campaign Discourse and Trust

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

Just 18 weeks passed between the announcement of a UK referendum on EU membership, and the vote for Brexit. In this startlingly short time an intense and competitive environment sprung-up as the two official campaigns Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe made their case. Both sides quickly succumbed to name calling, dishonesties and emotional arguments. As a result the fabrication of ‘facts’ has been the subject of pre and post-referendum debate: ‘Remain Camps’ Four Big EU Lies’ (Daily Mail, 22nd June) and ‘8 of the most misleading promises of the Vote Leave campaign, ranked in order of preposterousness’ (Independent, 24th June 2016). But the atmosphere during the referendum campaign tapped into much deeper and long-standing problems in British society, the full extent of which are still unravelling. A YouGov poll building on research by Gallup from 1944 shows a rising disaffection with politicians from the British public. In 1944 35% thought politicians were ‘only out for themselves’, in 1972 this rose to 38% and in 2014 it rose again to 48%. Meanwhile the numbers who think politicians ‘are out for their country’ have dropped from 36% in 1944, to 28% in 1972 then dramatically to 10% in 2014. Negativity around politicians was particularly high among UKIP voters with 74% thinking politicians are ‘out for themselves’. Conversely, 18-24 year olds are less likely than other age groups to think politicians are ‘out for themselves’.

Trust then as the ‘firm belief in reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something’ (Dictionary 2016) was not lost in the referendum campaign, but long before. Public mistrust in politicians is deeply rooted, well known and based on problems which have repeated and accumulated over decades. A poll taken before the referendum showed two thirds of Leave supporters ‘much more likely to trust ordinary people’s common sense than the experts’. The most trusted group among leave voters were ‘people from well know businesses’, however with only 27%. The least trusted group among leave voters were ‘newspaper journalists’ with 11%, ‘politicians from Britain’ with 8% and ‘political leaders of other countries’ with 3%. ‘Academics’ came second in the list of most trusted among leavers with 26%. For remain supporters ‘academics’ are the most trusted with 68%, followed by ‘economists’ with 63%. ‘Newspaper journalists’ with 11% and ‘well known sports people’ also with 11% are the least trustworthy for remain supporters. However most notable, and what the article does not comment upon, is the difference in general levels of trust between the two camps. Leave supporters are less likely to trust any group with the top percentage of trust being 27% compared with 68% for remainers.

Trust in any institution then is lower among those who voted to leave. As noted in a previous article, this is linked with UKIP support and Nigel Farage talking ‘plain English’ rather than political-ese and formularised language (the same has been said of Donald Trump). Deep disillusionment linked with people, parties and bodies in Britain has caused mistrust.

As Matt Goodwin points out in his assessment of the Brexit result:

The problem was that most economically disaffected voters who were tempted by Brexit were already resigned to believing that their future would be worse than the past.

This also draws on a lack of representation by political elites and career politicians:

Such voters have felt increasingly cut adrift from established parties who have spent much of the past two decades pitching to the middle-classes.

Unsurprisingly then our study found remarkably low levels of trust for the campaigns on both sides among all age groups, adding to the argument that the campaigns tapped-into mistrust rather than created it over an 18 week period. Having said that the table below shows 42.9% did not trust either campaign in March, rising to 43.7% in June. Showing low levels of trust for both sides which did not change dramatically between March and June. The biggest rise in mistrust is seen among those who responded ‘don’t know’, precisely the group which both campaigns would supposedly be targeting. In addition those who ‘don’t know’ are more likely than either remain or leave supporters to mistrust both campaigns. Considering that the number of ‘don’t knows’ dropped in general between March and June as people made up their minds, it was those who were genuinely undecided that the campaigns failed to reach.

Voting preference by trust in campaigns (%)

Between March and June the percentage of people who responded with ‘don’t know’ dropped from 12.2% to 6.1%, support for remain also dropped from 47.4% to 45.4% and leave rose from 40.4% to 44.6%. While we cannot tell which direction each ‘don’t know’ response went, the broad pattern shows leave gained trust within the campaign period while remain lost it. This is an important trend in relation to trust. It implies that while scepticism of the EU and political elites in the UK go deeper than what we can see in the campaign period, where campaigns did change minds leave was more successful. The next sections takes a look at the campaigns and their materials to try and understand why this might be.

   Voting preference Don’t trust either campaign Trust leave more Trust remain more Trust both equally Don’t know
March (N=5120) Remain 43.7 1.9 33.7 8.0 12.8
Leave 38.4 45.2 1.0 5.6 9.8
Don’t know 46.7 3.7 2.9 5.9 40.8



Remain 42.0 2.7 47.3 2.7 5.3
Leave 35.9 55.5 1.1 2.3 5.2
Don’t know 53.2 3.8 2.6 3.5 36.9


The campaigns

Vote Leave was run as a cross-party campaign backed by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and another 136 Conservative MPs, 10 Labour MPs, UKIP and all 8 DUP MP’s in Northern Ireland. It also had the backing of Farmers for Britain, Muslims for Britain and Out and Proud (a gay anti-EU group). The campaign raised £2.78m in total.

Britain Stronger in Europe was headed by former Marks and Spencer Chairman Lord Rose and backed by then Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, 185 Conservative MP’s, 218 Labour MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn and Alan Johnson, all 8 Lib Dem MPs, Plaid Cymru and all 3 PC MPs, the Alliance Party and SDLP in Northern Ireland, and the Green Party. The SNP ran its own remain campaign in Scotland as it did not want to share a platform with the Conservatives and all 54 MSPs supported this. The campaign raised £6.88m in total.

At first glance Britain Stronger in Europe was better funded, had more political gravitas, in Westminster and abroad, and a longer list of experts supporting it. Despite a well-established pattern of better-funded campaigns winning (90% of the time) the least well-funded side appears to have beat the odds this time. This gives credence to the view that the leave campaign used more than created a culture of fear and blame. With the political and economic odds against it the leave campaign won the referendum, and as the analysis below shows with less persuasion employed than by the remain. This is closely linked with the rising popularity of UKIP in the UK since 2014 and evidenced by the trust data above.

Campaign materials unpicked

Taking examples of campaign resources from Vote Leave (VL) and Britain Stronger in Europe (BSiE) websites, we can see that a large proportion of both focus on countering statements made by the other but with important differences.

The VL website is mainly comprised of print-out posters and campaign leaflets with no research materials immediately visible on the landing page. Under ‘campaign resources’ only two documents have more than a logo and slogan as posters for printing. One of the two is a leaflet entitled ‘5 positive reasons to Vote Leave and take back control’. It is fold-out flyer with one page per ‘reason’ illustrated by pictures, it includes a tear-away section with space for a name, contact details and a tick box list of contributions to the campaign. The following points are made in large clear writing:

  1. ‘Our money, our priorities’ it notes the money sent by the UK to the EU per week (marked at £350 million – enough to build a modern hospital every week of the year)
  2. ‘Take back control over our laws’ includes the value of overruling EU laws in the European court.
  3. ‘Build a fairer, safer immigration system’ which will be ‘more humane and based on the skills we need’.
  4. ‘Free to trade with the whole world’ and specifically China, India and Australia.
  5. ‘Vote Leave is the safer choice: If we vote to remain in the EU, we’ll be locked in the back of the car going somewhere we don’t want to go. We’ll keep subsidising other EU countries and losing more control every year’.

The messages are simple, short and presented in a positive light. What is most notable is the usability as the flyer can be distributed, read aloud (or paraphrased) and the tear-away section is pre-stamped and addressed making direct involvement easy and cost free. This invitation to become directly involved gives responsibility to the leave supporter allowing them to take action (or control).

The BSiE website resource page has over twenty documents of fact-based pamphlets, research and reports. The page includes an equivalent leaflet under ‘campaign resources’ entitled ‘Easy to read leaflet’. It is a four page document with 12 key points (four on each page) illustrated by infographics and cartoons but not numbered.

  • The first page includes a statement: ‘The United Kingdom (UK) is part of a large group of countries called the European Union (EU)’, then the date of the referendum and a brief description of the term ‘referendum’, and a statement – ‘The “Britain Stronger in Europe” campaign team want you to vote to remain part of the EU. They have 8 reasons why’.
  • The second page starts by stating that the UK has ‘3 million jobs’ because of trade with the EU, then – ‘experts say that it would have a bad effect on the UK economy’, finally a description of international business competition which ‘makes things cheaper and that is good for us when we buy things in the shops’.
  • The third page focuses on the NHS and government spending cuts in the event of leaving the EU, then ‘being in the EU means UK businesses can sell their goods easily to 500 million people that live in the EU’, finally ‘the UK gets £66 million every day from other EU countries much more than we pay to be a member…’.
  • The fourth and final page states that over 200,000 businesses in the UK trade with the EU thus creating jobs, EU law protects equality and diversity in the workplace and finally a statement ‘Vote to Remain on Thursday the 23rd June’.

Both resources are roughly the same length (300-400 words), are clearly illustrated. A notable difference is the location on their websites. While the BSiE flyer is located on a webpage among a number of research reports and documents on ‘getting the facts’, the VL flyer is the most detailed resource on the webpage. In terms of discourse both frame their arguments using one or two figures or ‘facts’ cased in narrative. The BSiE use more figures and numbers than VL. The VL flyer is framed using more positive or ‘emotional’ wording such as ‘safe’, the ‘whole world’ and ‘positive reasons’ but also includes the word ‘control’ 12 times including in the webpage name ‘’. The BsiE flyer is couched in much more ‘neutral’ language with only one opinion offered on the facts and statements The competition makes things cheaper and that is good for us when we buy things in the shops. Coupled with the absence of a tear-away leaflet the BSiE flyer takes a more authoritative and lecture-like tone while VL incites people to get involved.

This pertains to Matt Goodwins’ criticism of remain:

The Remain camp would be best placed making a positive case for Britain’s EU membership. Instead, it spent almost all of the campaign focusing on the negatives of Brexit, robotically claiming leaving the EU would jeopardize Britain’s economic future.

The VL campaign resources also imply that in terms of information – less was more. It could also signal more of a grass roots movement, backed by the tear-away section on the main VL flyer and linked with Ford and Goodwin’s book on Farage’s grassroots campaign. So while BSiE was pitching to the electorate, VL gave the impression that it was the electorate and the importance of the different discursive approaches is crystallised in the words of Nelson Mandela:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Vote Leave didn’t focus on evidence or arguments to persuade people, but BSiE did. This could mean BSiE were hoping to persuade undecided people who might visit their website while VL were focussed on making emotive arguments to people who probably already supported them. So while VL attempted to mobilise a groups of distrustful and alienated people, BSiE were trying to persuade.

Going back to the question of the extent to which the campaigns used or created a culture of fear, we can see that neither openly ‘created’ fear through their resources, but compounded existing societal divisions by using different languages and discursive practices, for example through assumptions about the value of expertise on the BSiE side leading to the distant voice of authority as opposed to the straightforward approach taken by the VL.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to