Fantasy and Fear: At the Heart of the EU Referendum Campaign

21/06/2016 16:10 | Updated 1 day ago

As a former public relations consultant I have been both a student, and to an extent a practitioner, of the dark arts of propaganda. I know that effective propaganda is like a drug: it has a terrible seduction that can lure whole nations into very dark places. One of the 20th Century's most terrible and seductive propagandists was the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. He understood the power of fantasy and fear. The fantasy involved imagining a world where life was better and the country was liberated to achieve its destiny and full potential. Crucially, he realised that you don't explain how to create such a world, because to do so involves dealing in reality (an appalling reality in the case of the Nazis) and reality is the enemy of fantasy. Instead you position this world as being almost within reach, but simply unattainable because of an enemy that is standing in your way: an enemy without and an enemy within. This is where the fear comes in. In Goebbel's case the enemy without were the encircling powers of the victorious allies and the enemy within was the Jews.

The fantasy and fear model didn't die with Goebbels, we see it on display within the current EU Referendum campaign and, not necessarily coincidentally, within the campaign of Donald Trump.

The Leave campaign has created its fantasy world where our economy will blossom, where we will have boundless extra money to spend on our health service, where we will be 'in control'. It hasn't spent any time explaining how this world will be created, not simply because of a lack of credible evidence but because it knows this means dealing in reality - the enemy of fantasy. The 'encircling' enemy without is the EU with its regulations and unelected bureaucrats and the enemy within are migrants. These are not necessarily the migrants that are actually within (and helping run public services and grow the economy), but the migrants that seek to be within; an all-together more potent threat, because the spectre of that which is rumoured but cannot yet be seen is always more powerful.

The Remain campaign has not deployed the fantasy and fear model to the same extent. I would like to believe this is because it has chosen not to do so but it is more likely that it hasn't deployed this model because it can't. It doesn't have a fantasy world it can create, it can only deal in the currency of reality and it doesn't have an enemy. Insofar as it has tried to leverage the power of fear, it has only resulted in creating a fear that is internalised: making people themselves feel frightened (of losing the jobs or having less money), rather than being able to externalise their fears and push them onto someone, or something, else.

As a propagandist myself, I cannot condemn - but I can sound a warning. Fantasy and fear are seductive but they are rarely used to lead you to a good place. Fantasy and fear are also at their most powerful when they can feed off discontent. Reality is mundane and frequently difficult - but it represents the world we have to live within and the people we have to share it with. And the best worlds are created where we replace fantasy with reality and fear with happiness (and propagandists have a tough time).