The tenure of Cardiff University alumnus Sir Craig Oliver as Director of Communications for UK Prime Minister David Cameron was an eventful one.
Not only did he play a key role in coordinating the first UK coalition government since World War 2, but he was also instrumental in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and the 2016 European Union Membership Referendum. Following the publication of his book Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit, he came back to Cardiff to discuss politics, communications and, of course, Brexit.
Sir Craig on whether advisers can change the mind of Prime Ministers
“I was in the back of a car with David Cameron when he decided that he was going to call a referendum and he was going through all the arguments about why there needed to be a referendum. I could see that they all made sense, but I said to him ‘can you think of any reasons why there shouldn’t be a referendum?’ and he said very quickly ‘…because you could release demons of which ye know not’.
“What he recognised was that this was something that was going to be incredibly heartfelt in the country. I don’t think he realised the extent to which demons were going to be unleashed and that it was going to be so bitter, bloody and divisive. And I think those demons are not really about Europe. I don’t think in many ways that we were arguing about Europe. It was about how people felt about their position in the world and whether they felt that the big globalised world and the metropolitan elite that was running the country understood them properly or not. I think that was what the demons were and if you look at the country now it feels like it’s very battered and bruised and it looks like it’s going to take a long time to heal.
“We live in a very complicated world where international markets governments operate in very different ways and I think that the European referendum revealed quite how few people, including myself, properly understood what Europe was really about, how it operated and why it mattered.”
Sir Craig discusses the surprising ‘Leave’ vote in Wales and the future of the UK
“I think that Remain struggled because there was an awful lot of jargon and complexity around that, and I think also what we were trying to do was to defend the status quo. It’s much harder to defend the status quo because people can point to things that patently haven’t worked or aren’t desirable, and the thing that happened with the Leave campaign was that they were able to create these kind of fantasies of reality where everything would be perfect and nothing would be a problem.
“They were often asserting things that just simply weren’t true such as the idea that very soon Turkey would join the EU and as a result 79 million people would just be flooding towards this country. They were also making assertions about the extent to which our sovereignty was undermined by being part of the EU and when you break it down, it’s not really the case whatsoever. Perhaps more importantly, what they were able to do was to tap into a kind of raw anger, raw emotion, a feeling that globalisation wasn’t working for them and that there was a party going on somewhere else and that they weren’t invited to it.
“If I was being facetious, I would say that I wish I could invent a time machine and go back 40 years and force politicians to make the case for the EU and make the case for why immigration is a very good thing for this country and make the case for why its the case that in this very complex and nuanced world that we need to have a seat at the table. Simply drawing a boundary around yourself, cutting the anchor and trying to float off to the mid-Atlantic and not have anything to do with our near neighbours is not realistic in any way shape or form.
“We made those arguments. We pushed them very, very hard. But in the end, people simply just didn’t believe us. And I think what we’ve seen over the last 2.5 years is that the fantasy of Brexit has come into contact with the reality. I was watching the news the other night and a Brexiteer was just simply saying that ‘that we’ve got to deliver it come what may because the people have voted for it’. You can see that they’ve completely lost sight of any argument for it, or what it means, or why you’re doing it. You’re simply saying it has become an end-in-itself.
“To an extent there’s a link with the Scottish Referendum. I remember we were in a green room in Davos before David Cameron was due to give a speech and Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, dropped by wanting to have a chat about Brexit. He said to us ‘I hear it’s fine. I hear it’s a bit like the Scottish Referendum and people will say that they will vote for it but in the end they won’t because they know what’s good for them’. At that moment I had the first inclination that we were in real trouble.
“People had the expectation that somehow this was going to be a breeze and as a result the Labour Party didn’t properly engage and that was a problem for us. They felt that they shouldn’t help some old Etonian toff over the line when he was going to win anyway. In view of the result, a lot of people ask the question ‘why did David Cameron lead from the front?’ The answer was simply that if he didn’t, no-one else would.
“I think it’s fair to say that were two big mistakes in terms of the handling of Brexit so far. The first was the Lancaster House speech in which Theresa May painted some very, very strong red lines. I think the problem with painting those red lines was that it meant that we were on the train tracks to a deal that was never going to be popular. That was very clear if you spoke to people like Ivan Rogers who were very clear very early on that if you choose these red lines the consequences were inevitable.
“The second thing was obviously the General Election campaign of 2017 where the Conservatives were up to 24 points ahead. I can see why they wanted to grab at that, but the campaign focussed on the idea of ‘strong and stable’ and people didn’t believe it. Jeremy Corbyn had a very good campaign and as a result the very hard fought for majority that David Cameron won in 2015 evaporated and I wonder if that majority was still there if things might have been considerably easier.”
Sir Craig outlines his views on the future of the Conservative and Labour Parties
“It’s perfectly possible that something good will come out of Brexit. I think that the saying of ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ is a good one. The reality is that quite often out of the ashes of things, good things emerge. All the clichés apply here – ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn’ etc. This is a great country, we’ve got talented people, look at what’s happening with the university in Cardiff spreading its wings. There are lots of talented people in this country and I’m sure it will go from strength to strength. My feeling is that I just wish we hadn’t had to go through this period.”
You can view Sir Craig’s lecture ‘Communications in a populist world’ as delivered at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture below: