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A Referendous Mistake?

Some reflections on THAT referendum...

Dan Peacock

Naked Politics Blogger 

What did the ancient Greeks ever do for us? Quite a lot, actually. The Olympics, philosophy, hummus. They gave us the concept of democracy of course, and the theatrical genre of ‘farce’. Unfortunately however, it would appear that the UK has got these latter two confused in recent months. The result has been a tragedy of Athenian proportions.

I can almost taste the accusations of sour grapes already. Yes I voted remain. Yes I’m disgruntled. We remainers have every right to feel hurt, angry and concerned (albeit preferably not manifested in foul-mouthed, dissertation-length Facebook laments – if you please). However what follows is not sour grapes. I intended to write an article of this nature regardless of the outcome.

Just as Roy Hodgson will probably do come Monday night if England lose to Iceland, I am blaming the ref.

To put it bluntly, the way this referendum has been conducted by all parties and actors engaged in the debate has been an absolute disgrace, and in hindsight should probably never have been allowed to take place. I once maintained that Hell would freeze over before I agreed with something Richard Dawkins said, however his belief that the referendum should never have been called, but instead should have been decided by our elected and accountable MP’s, I can’t help but begrudgingly agree with.

Disclaimer: do I believe that the majority of the UK public are ‘ignoramuses’? Absolutely not. And whilst we on the subject, voting leave does not make you a xenophobe or a racist or [insert reactionary label here]-ist. In my opinion you made a poor, poor decision that you will regret, but such terms are ludicrous, unfair and empirically false. I resolutely believe that the vast majority of leave voters had relatively benign and for them, perfectly rational reasons for opting to do so. That said, I believe many were well and truly duped.

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The problem with any debate regarding the European Union is that it is going to be complicated. Very complicated. It involves huge sums of money, very technical and complex economics and highly interconnected economies held together in a very delicate balance. Adding to this complexity is the generally brittle state of the world economy, the already fairly complicated relationship the UK has with the EU and the recent unfolding of the largest migrant crisis Europe has ever seen. Attempting to conduct a debate among a nation with upwards of 60 million inhabitants on an issue this multi-layered, technical and nuanced was always going to result in utter chaos. Where there is chaos, there is confusion, and where there is confusion, there is an information vacuum. When you have an information vacuum juxtaposed with an increasingly emotive and divided population ready to believe anything, and no independent body to properly referee and monitor the debate, the key political players on both sides of the debate are handed with a blank cheque to stretch and fabricate the truth as far they dare.

And this is exactly what has happened.

The amount of misinformation and patently vacuous argumentation that has been peddled during this referendum – by both sides of the debate I hasten to add –is absolutely staggering and, in this writers view, tantamount to downright election fraud. Take, for instance, the oft-quoted alleged weekly cost of the EU as £350 million. This has been the Leave campaign’s flagship statistic. Yet this figure is simply false. The UK Statistics Authority point out that this figure did not include the rebate (the money we receive straight back from the EU based on a calculation of what we put in to compared to what we receive). When the rebate is concluded – our actual net contribution is approximately £250 million. And that is being kind, for this figure does not include the millions the UK’s public sector receives from the EU. In reality, real figure is probably well south of £200 million. In short, the Leave campaign was way off the mark.

It was then claimed this money would be spent on the NHS – a remarkable yet powerful claim that they have no constitutional obligation to uphold. Even Nigel Farage admitted yesterday morning that it was a mistake for the leave campaign to have made such a promise. Similarly, it was claimed that we would “take back control of our boarders” and put a stop to the free movement of people in the event of a brexit. But hours after the referendum result MEP Daniel Hannan stated on Newsnight that free movement of labour would have to continue. The Remain campaign ubiquitously claimed that UK households would be on average £4,300 worse off in the case of Brexit. The figure was proclaimed with palpable certainty. However this figure does not amount to more than a very speculative conjecture, based on guestimates of the state of the economy by 2030. Such ‘facts’ like the above were pervasive it seems on both sides.

Both sides zealously and knowingly disseminated ‘facts’ that were either empirically untrue or were based on highly speculative economic guestimates. These facts ended up plastered all over official websites, London buses, pigeons, rats, you name it. And millions were evidently sold. It is an absolute disgrace.

 

This blank cheque was not limited to bogus statistics however. In the chaos and confusion, certain narratives were able to be constructed that maintained that were blatantly and empirically contradicted. Just like in the film ‘Inception’, when an idea is planted in the mind without the subject being aware of it, an idea can grow and become a reality regardless of its truth. This inception was particularly evident in one pivotal, vital area of discussion during the debate: immigration. That this became a central arena of debate is quite remarkable. It is a fact that net non-EU migration is higher than EU migration, so really the issue of immigration should have been of relatively little consequence to the whole discussion. Moreover, even staunch Eurosceptics rarely dispute that EU migration is very healthy for the UK economy. Yet still this political football was constantly kept in play, as demonstrated by that somewhat grotesque, 1930’s style poster modelled by Nigel Farage in recent weeks. The Leave campaign knew that immigration was an emotive topic for many, that immigrants are always an easy, visible scapegoat and that if you repeat something enough times, even the most informed will eventually begin to believe it. Such scaremongering and narrative construction was also evident on the Remain side, who spent more time trying to frighten the already confused and beguiled UK population into voting remain rather than promoting the (many) benefits of EU membership and stressing its importance to our everyday lives.

In short, the major political players in the debate (considerably more so on the Leave side) have exploited the aforementioned information vacuum and confusion to perpetuate myths and tales that, though lacking in any kind of truth or substance, were convincing and tangible enough to be believed by millions.

Many have expressed sentiments that, regardless of the result, this referendum has been a victory for democracy and an exercise of real people power that must be respected with near-sanctity. However how can we claim to have engaged in a true democratic act when so much of the information we have been fed and based our decision upon has either been misleading or downright bogus? It would appear that in order to advance their own ideological agenda, certain political and economic elites have exploited the chaos and confusion induced by the immense complexity of the EU debate and turned a referendum into a farce. This referendum was a monumental mistake, and it should make us seriously rethink how, or even if, we conduct referendums in the future. In the present, it has left our country more divided and volatile than I can remember in my lifetime, and facing what looks to be a bleak future riddled with uncertainty.

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