Regular readers of this blog will know that I have steered clear of political topics before now, wanting it to remain a vehicle for my professional writings, either on history or on digital scholarship. I’m making an exception for the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and here’s why.
Politics involves spin, a certain amount of exaggeration, the presentation of the most favourable interpretation of a situation. We understand this, I think; and (as Evgeny Morozov has argued) political life is probably impossible without it. In order to carry large groups of people with them, politicians must be able to make broad claims, about political philosophy and the likelihood of certain future events. That they are open to dispute is no intrinsic difficulty.
I voted Remain, and believe the result to be potentially catastrophic for the UK, and potentially very damaging for the rest of Europe. However, the Remain camp were certainly guilty of some exaggeration in some cases, about the potential economic meltdown that Brexit would cause (although as I write the FTSE 250 share index is more than 10% down in two days’ trading, and the pound at a 30-year low against the US dollar.) However, I think the conduct of the Leave campaign is of a different order.
Time after time, Leave campaigners made verifiably untrue statements about the present situation, and about clearly known facts about the future. Penny Mordaunt MP, a minister of the Crown, repeatedly insisted on live television that the UK would be unable to veto Turkish membership of the EU, a matter publicly contradicted by her own party leader, the Prime Minister. And this was not a momentary confusion: the same claim is made by the poster below.
I could multiply example after example of these, but will rest with the worst of them all: the £350million figure that the UK supposedly pays to the EU budget each week. Journalist after journalist challenged the number over several weeks, as the true figure after the rebate the UK receives is about half that. Time after time the Leavers insisted on it, even after the UK Statistics Authority, about as impartial as they come, expressed disappointment that the figure was still being used, and that to do so ‘undermines trust in official statistics’. But no, still the posters stayed up, and there it was, still on the Leave battle bus as they arrived for the big debate at Wembley Arena 36 hours before polls opened.
I shall not go into the way in which these and other claims have been breezily disowned in the days since the result, in a show of reckless frivolity that characterised the campaign generally. My point is that this kind of downright lying poisons the wells for the whole of our political culture, for everyone, whether you voted Remain or Leave. It further fuels precisely the cynicism about politics that seems to have behind some of the paranoid rumours that circulated before the vote that it might be rigged. And it adds to the righteous anger of many of the 48% who are disappointed by the result, but might have accepted it otherwise. I wish I had a easy remedy: a way to repair the damage done to the fabric of our public discourse, but right now I don’t have it. Leaver or Remainer, we all lost on Thursday.