Boris Johnson addresses the media during the Leave campaign. Photo: Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire/PA. All rights reserved.Pivotal moments can produce an intense heat, capable of bending a country’s politics. In this context, the European referendum was always a worrying prospect. It looked from the outset like it would dissolve into a debate between UKIP and the Confederation of British Industry; an argument about whether it was more important to cut migration or inflate big businesses; a tiff between cosmopolitan neoliberalism and British neo-conservatism, which would shine a spotlight on both whilst leaving any other perspectives to wilt.
The media as a whole seemed likely to reflect a rough balance between the two options on the ballot paper. But it seemed clear from the very beginning that those arguments for both sides which would come to dominate would be those which, on the one hand, opposed openness, and, on the other, cared little for democracy. Being a website committed to both of those things, this prospect concerned us deeply.
The aim of our coverage on openDemocracy was to wander off that narrow path, and hope to take at least some of the conversation with us; to shine a torch into different corners of argument and illuminate other conversations; and to contribute to the discussion about how to build a democratic Europe.
Rather than backing either side (though the members of our team would never pretend not to have strong opinions, and we worked closely with DiEM25), we sought to inject into the discussion some different premises. We wanted to start from different assumptions and see where they took us; to understand a key moment in modern British history as it unfolded. And from the outset, we argued (notably in Anthony Barnett’s Blimey, it could be Brexit) that the referendum was a significant national moment and that a Leave vote was perfectly plausible.
From this perspective, the national debate was perhaps even worse than we expected. Some Remainers and Leavers, on both the left and the right, did make arguments rooted in democracy, and many voters on both sides came to their conclusion based on egalitarian and internationalist motives. Nonetheless, it felt much of the time like the tone of the conversation didn’t merely reinforce the conventional track, but brushed the cobwebs off an old and darker path.
Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster felt to me like it crossed a line from neo-conservative to neo-fascist. The killing of Jo Cox, and the revelations about the politics of the man charged with her murder, only emphasised the sense that something was changing for the worse in Britain’s political conversation; a sense which was confirmed by the worrying rise in reports of racist incidents since the vote.
Perhaps one day, we’ll reach a point where what some call ‘alternative’ media can drive the debate away from such terrain. Arguably, it was new websites which drove the agenda, for better and worse, during the Scottish referendum. We haven’t yet reached that point across the UK as a whole. Certainly, we didn’t during this referendum.
We do hope, though, that our coverage helped readers to think differently about the world spinning around them. We hope that at least some of the pieces we published gave you that thrilling feeling when two things buried deep in your brain suddenly link up for the first time. And we hope that, at least for those who found their way to us, we opened the gate to new ways to talk about the question put to the people of Britain.
We’re pretty pleased with the stats: from February to the end of July, we published 342 pieces of content about the referendum. Around 650,000 people read at least one of our articles, which corresponds to about one percent of the British population. The various videos we produced picked up around 1.8 million views between them.
Perhaps more importantly, we managed at least some breadth of perspective, with pitches for Remain and Leave from environmentalists, LGBT activists, trade unionists, radical democrats, peace campaigners, migrants rights campaigners and more. And we did our best not just to present arguments for either side, but to understand what was going on as it unfolded.
For me, the whole thing was an interesting process. I found my own view shifting. At the outset, I was a relatively unexcited Remain voter. By the end, I found that editing and publishing articles arguing for both sides left me much more enthusiastic about staying in the EU. But I also found that there were significant audiences for intelligent, thoughtful arguments to leave from a generally progressive perspective. openDemocracyUK’s best read case to leave – written by my former co-editor Olly Huitson – attracted more readers than our best read* case to Remain, written by Gilbert Ramsay, my brother.
This sense of Leave voters’ engagement in and promotion of serious arguments was one of the things which gave me a creeping sense that the result might be as it was (though I don’t pretend to have predicted it). And for me, it belies one of the anti-democratic narratives of the referendum: that the UK voted to leave the EU because foolish people were duped. In reality, whilst people certainly do believe all kinds of strange things, I found Leave voters to be at least as knowledgeable, widely read, and hungry for information as Remain voters: perhaps more. Both sides had their engaged and disengaged voters, their idiots and their geniuses.
But our stats show something else which I find interesting: pieces attempting to understand what was happening or spell out future possibilities were, on the whole, better read than arguments for either side. Anthony Barnett attracted significant audience for the book he published live, which gave a detailed historical and theoretical grounding to what on earth is going on in British politics right now. Alan Finlayson’s analysis of who really won and why was hugely popular, as was Ben Ramm’s interview with Slavoj Zizek. Pieces written by Kirsty Hughes and me about Scotland’s place in the whole thing found their way to large audiences.
Of course, we’d never claim that openDemocracyUK is reflective of the country. It’s not. But it’s worth noting that the larger readership for analysis than for appeals for a particular vote is markedly different to our experience during the Scottish referendum, which again confirms a sense I got during the whole process. It felt like the loose network of people who read openDemocracy saw themselves as activists during Scotland’s independence referendum, repeatedly sharing articles which made the case for their side. Their equivalents in the EU referendum felt more like observers, peering at history inquisitively as it passed by.
Now the referendum has happened, we’re moving on, with a couple of major projects looking at the UK economy (watch this space) and a new series, Reset, looking at the need to move on from Britain’s many broken institutions. Thanks for reading over the last, turbulent period, and do come back as this remarkable period of British politics continues.
*Though, perhaps surprisingly, the best read case for either side on all of openDemocracy was a piece published by Can Europe Make It arguing in defence of the Common Fisheries Policy. Never underestimate the size of a niche audience.