The lie that won

The comedy is that David Cameron believed his own lie. The tragedy is, so did the rest of us.

The Conservative victory at last year’s election sent shockwaves through the media and political establishments. When the dust had settled and the pollsters had been pilloried, it was all so obvious why the Tories had won- or, more precisely, why Labour had lost. The Conservatives had a clear economic message, supported by the business establishment. They had the backing of business leaders and the tacit support from international bodies such as the IMF. A vote for Labour was to risk the recovery. Pundits left and right bought into this analysis. The British public, we gathered, is risk-averse and listens to the experts.

How wrong we were.

What really happened in the 2015 election was something much more interesting. Lynton Crosby, who spearheaded the Conservative campaign, knew first and foremost that it’s not the message but how it’s told: repeatedly. Crosby’s strategy was inspired by his observations gleaned from the 2000 presidential election. Karl Rove, who ran Bush’s first campaign, recounted an anecdote of how it is for the press to be stuck on planes for months on end with candidates and hearing the same speeches. Halfway through that campaign the travelling press cornered Mr Rove and demanded a new stump speech. They argued that new rhetoric was needed to create news lines, stories, coverage. Rove resisted, saying “we change the stump speech the day every voter can recite it.”

The effect is mass hypnosis. The point isn’t whether the Conservative’s messages on economic credibility or suggestion of an SNP-Labour marriage were true. They defined the reality. In an information saturated age people are intuitively drawn to simple messages- and the more an idea is expressed, the more it becomes credible. Edward Bernays understood this in 1923 when he wrote Crystalising Public Opinion. Now in our congested digital ecosystem we crave for what Bernays non-judgementally called ‘the herd’.  The credulity of this herd is based not on the quality of information transmitted from without but what takes hold within- and there it multiplies like rabbits.  As the apocryphal Goebbels quotation goes, “if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.”

And, it seems, you will believe it too. When Cameron & co embarked on their campaign for keeping Britain in the European Union they still believed in the power of their message: trust us, we know what we’re doing.  The trouble was, Leave had a better slogan- and it was all about you: take back control.

“People in this country have had enough of experts” – a line that seems to capture the essence of the referendum and its subsequent outcome. Let’s not overstate the implications. Those who shunned the ‘project fear’ of economists and business leaders are still consulting their GPs and delegating the trickier bathroom fittings to plumbing specialists.  The point isn’t that Leave voters were rejecting a type of person but rather a type of argument. As Aaron Banks rationalised the arguments of Leave had “to be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect.”

Propaganda puts the emotions in overdrive. Bernays’s text is full of the motions of emotion: they rush and swirl, heave and jolt. If “the great enemy of any attempt to change men’s habits is inertia” it is propaganda that “makes things move.” In 2016 Bernays is a fantastic guide not simply to winning elections but is essential reading for any wannabe starlet lusting after their 5 minutes or brands desperate to stay relevant. Picking up on his own motion metaphors, to be famous is to run a marathon every day.

My role as stoker to the engines of careers both glorious and toxic has taught me to respect the discipline of propaganda –or, to use a more commonplace term, publicity. It is, after all, only a tool and one that can be applied for good or ill. As a good patrician liberal Bernays saw the object of propaganda as promoting better health and wellbeing and combatting prejudice. He was horrified to discover that one of his most enthusiastic exponents was Joseph Goebbels.

It is now more important than ever to call out the half-truths and the spin. What the post-referendum divide has exposed is that the well-educated, metropolitan class have found themselves in a position of dangerous naivety. We thought that propaganda was dead. When it reared its ugly head in soundbites and crude expressions of the referendum we assumed everyone would see through it. As Bernays says, propaganda works best “without our realising it.”