Post-truth politics : how Leave hacked the political system and what it means for us
A couple of weeks before the referendum, I penned a long(ish) article outlining the reasons for Remaining. These were largely economic, with a dose of pragmatism — not only would Leave wreck the Economy, but every path out of it was sub-optimal — and a few barbs at the Leave’s campaign lying and dogwhistling while I was at it.
I didn’t publish it. I intended to on the Monday before the vote, but after the assassination of Jo Cox a few days before, I felt writing anything seemed pointless. Furthermore, I had the nagging feeling that no matter how many people read it, I wouldn’t change a single mind.
Leave’s surprise win on Thursday night has confirmed that suspicion.
The initial signs from the fallout are not good — global stock markets crashed on Friday, and the pound devalued to such a degree that France is now the fifth largest economy in the world instead of the UK. Tremendous uncertainty now hangs over us — who the next Prime Minister will be, if the Leader of the Opposition will survive, whether we will have a snap election, what happens to Scotland (and Gibraltar), when negotiations to leave the EU will begin, and what the UK’s eventual relation with the EU will be.
There’s simply no plan and nobody has a clue — the referendum result is a disaster in itself, let alone the further pain we will suffer if and when the UK actually leaves the EU. Every single economic analysis before the referendum warned of a recession (and thus reduced tax revenues, and yet more austerity), and now we’re living through the opening days of their stark predictions.
And yet 17.4 million people willingly voted for this to happen.
Was it an ethical compromise — that the economic pain for a few years was a price worth paying for? That the “freedom” from the European Union was worth any price, even a few years’ economic uncertainty and misery, and we shouldn’t let it spoil Leavers’ celebrations?
The looks on the faces of the “winners” says otherwise: neither Gove nor Johnson have been seen out celebrating this weekend. Voters interviewed just a day after air doubts about their decision. The Sunday Times (which endorsed Leave) has “What has he done?” on its front page. Daily Mail commenters are now furious no-one told them of the financial risks.
Except of course, they were told. Repeatedly, and insistently, the Remain camp warned of economic uncertainty if not chaos. It didn’t matter. Leave voters simply ignored them: 69% thought there would be little economic impact.
Why did they ignore those concerns? Did that many people really think Europe was holding the country back so much, they were willing to sacrifice economic well-being for it? To be sure, a minority of people make leaving the EU their life’s cause, but at the general election last year Europe ranked just 9th in voters’ concerns (the economy was 2nd). It doesn’t lend itself to a natural majority — and at the start of the campaign, opinion polls showed Remain had a lead in the double digits.
And then that lead got eaten up. Why?
Will Davies’s piece on the sociology of Brexit is a very good read on the underlying historical factors that stretch back decades. Thatcher’s policy gutted out the industrial North, and New Labour’s solutions — tax credits, shuffling public sector jobs, instead of proper redistribution and investment— merely alleviated the symptoms not the causes. Alienated and relying on the largesse of London, decades of resentment have built up; and to make things worse, the crash of 2008 and resulting austerity gutted public services. With local economies stagnant, government services cut to the bone, and your best opportunities zero-hour contracts and Workfare, what’s your reaction going to be when Westminster politicians say Britain is “stronger” and “set to grow faster” than anywhere else?
The Leave campaign looked at the grievances of undecided or wavering voters and made Europe the focus of all of them. Cuts in the NHS or education bothering you? That’s because the EU costs £350m a week. Wages low, or jobs scarce? Not the fault of uncaring employers or sluggish demand, but because the immigrants keep taking them. A nagging sense things aren’t the way you want? That’s because Europe has control over every aspect of your lives.
This campaign was a stroke of malevolent genius — it capitalised on legitimate feelings of discontent and anger, and made Europe a convenient proxy to take the fall for all of them. It didn’t matter if it was true or not — of course it wasn’t, it was actually a pack of lies and exaggerations.
Never mind Trump being the master of post-truth politics, we have it here and we do it better than he does.
You can’t just blame the Leave campaign for lying. Ashcroft’s exit polling states 54% of Leave voters didn’t think Remain would win, that many saw it as a protest vote. Maybe that’s a hangover from the two-party system and first-past-the-post, perhaps, or maybe simple (and understandable) cynicism that voting never gets anything done for you.
The electorate were also more than willing to take those lies uncritically— “British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows”, goes theheadline not from the Daily Mash, but the Independent. And FT research backs that up — while there are correlations between voting Leave and low income, as well as age, the strongest correlation is level of education.
Who was holding them to account? A predominantly right-wing, Eurosceptic press cheered, which on the Leave campaign to victory: 49.6% of national press circulation was from pro-Leave papers, while only 32.6% was pro-Remain. As a side note, it’s only one data point, but it’s worth noting that despite scoring highly on a set of Leave indicators such as post-industrial neglect, low income and education level, Liverpool came out for Remain. Liverpudlians, as it happens, also boycott The Sun.
(As for the BBC, the less said the better. The BBC’s coverage at times resembled its cravenly awful coverage of climate change — always seeking a “balance” of views rather than the truth)
Finally, the setup of the referendum gave Leave cause to run riot. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum, there was no obligation for Leave to outline a plan or costings for a Brexit. Unlike commercial advertising, there’s no penalty for lying in political advertising. And unlike a Parliamentary election, there’s no way of booting the winner out if it turns out they have lied.
And with only a simple 50% + 1 needed (not a supermajority, nor even a majority required in all the constituent countries), all that you needed to do was push the population over the edge for a couple of weeks before your campaign runs out of steam, and suffer no consequences if you turned out to be wrong, or lying, or both. Leave combined all of these vulnerabilities and used them to carry out a devilishly clever hack of our political system.
So, Europe was a totem to nail your discontent to. People thought their vote wouldn’t count. Many had a poor understanding of the facts, and a Eurosceptic press dominated discussion. And the Leave campaign were under no obligation to tell the truth, nor be held to their actions after the vote. These combined to make a perfect storm for a disastrous decision to be made — squeaking home by a 3.8% majority, and that mandate cannot be reversed.
We’ve uncorked the genie of post-truth politics out of the bottle. So what next? An angry electorate has got what it wanted, except it didn’t really know what it wanted. The actual problems on their mind — the NHS, the economy, jobs, housing — still weigh heavily, and leaving the EU is not going to solve them.
And that anger will now find other outlets. It’s already started — there’ve been numerous reports in the wake of victory, of harassment of migrants and minorities in the street, threatening notes through doors and racist graffiti on buildings. To be clear, only a minority of Leave voters are racist, but every racist is a Leave voter, and this result has emboldened them and made them more confident. They think they’re in the ascendancy now, and shamefully, their allies in the Leave camp are doing nothing to rein them in.
Where else is that anger going to go? Because angry Leave voters are only going to get angrier when they realise the promises of the Leave side were lies worth nothing. They’re already walking those lies back already. Nigel Farage has already poured cold water on spending the mythical £350m per week saved on the NHS. Daniel Hannan has said there won’t be strict controls on immigration. Of course they can do this, because they’ve won their battle but are free of any responsibility of the consequences.
What’s going to happen when these underlying problems are still not fixed and the people who are rightfully angry realise that they’ve been taken for mugs by the political class — ones wearing purple rosettes rather than red or blue—again? What option do they have when even the protest party turns out to be even worse than the others? Where will they direct their anger to next? If I were a politician I’d be worrying about that far more than the internal squabbles in my own party in the coming days.