I am shocked, horrified, incredulous, scared, very angry and, above all, sad. The UK has decided to turn its back to common sense, its best values, its own self-interest, and voted to leave the EU. A lot of ink has been spilled, trying to make sense of the result, analyses abound, making what follows a mere drop in the ocean. I still need to write it, because it is the necessary premise of what I hope can become a constructive interpretation. This post is intended to be the first of a series of three articles: to get started, we’ll look at the minimal list of lies that allowed the UK to shoot itself in both feet (or worse) – it’s a long list, with origins that can be traced back to the glossy eighties. The second post will look at how systematic lying affects politicians themselves, the third will do the same for electors. My hope is to identify a reasonable strategy to try counterbalancing the current trend.
The fact that the EU referendum result has been somewhat influenced by systematic lies, and that at least some of these lies were allowed to reach the status of pseudo-facts is well known, even passionate Brexiteers will admit that their side has proposed somewhat misleading arguments. Lots of people have already explored this outlook, see for example Peter Yeung for the Independent, this analysis by Will Davies, Jonathan Freedland, and Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian. Examples from the blogosphere abound as well, I’ll cite only Eleanor St Clair‘s eloquent article , because she speaks for my anger as well.
The bottom line is: Britain was conned (pun intended), the Brexit side won because a large proportion of the population was systematically misinformed. This is bad, but it entails a much darker consequence: in the process, democracy has been subverted and reduced to a despicable farce. Doublespeak is not just normalised, it is either expected or required. I am sorry, but I am not going to oblige. If you voted leave, what follows will be hard to read: I can’t help it, please do read it and please do let me know the reasons why you may disagree.
[Note that links are hereby used as evidence: with one exception (on the marginal subject of Neo-Liberalism) they link to sources selected on the basis of their reputation and independence.]
My main thesis: one of the main purposes of democratic institutions is to make sure decision makers do not systematically favour the already privileged. There is much more to democracy, of course, but this important aim is the one that has been violated more blatantly. In this context, the EU referendum was conceived as a con (it was not called exclusively in the interests of the electorate), and ended up being much worse: we’ve got to a situation where upholding the democratic process requires either to act against the best interests of the population at large (invoke Article 50 – no matter the consequences) or to ignore the “democratically” expressed preference of the very same population. It’s a lose-lose situation, but I will be arguing that doggedly proceeding towards Brexit, in the name of the Will of the People is manifestly not our best option. Why? Because a vast proportion of the population was systematically misled, and brought to believe in a sky high, steaming pack of lies. A vote cast on the basis of systematically disseminated, hardly ever challenged lies, is not and cannot be a democratic expression. On this basis, it should not be acted upon without further reflection.
In other words, my aim is to demonstrate that many leavers did vote on the basis of false information.
A key narrative of Thatcherism was that self-interest, when channelled through competitive markets, can be transformed into a force for good. There is some truth in this claim, with the keyword being “can”, under certain circumstances. However, the first foundational lie which made the current situation possible is that, thanks in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it is now fairly uncontroversial to imply that competition and market regimes can be used to solve almost any problem (Lie#1). This is not the place to debunk this idea, so I’ll have to appeal to my readers’ charity and ask to provisionally accept that perhaps there are some problems that markets can’t solve (or even that markets actually create their own problems, just like everything else). For the current purpose, it’s important to note that such a Neo-Liberal idea has become commonplace since the early nineties, so much so that it is now assumed as fact: it is so pervasive that it is almost invisible. In this context, the Labour governments of Blair/Brown did not have any chance (and perhaps no intention) of challenging said assumption. As a consequence, an excessive (culpable) degree of laissez-faire allowed the financial sector to spin out of control, while the government temporarily enjoyed increased tax-revenues. We all know the result: by gambling with other people’s money, the financial sector undermined its own viability and had to be rescued with vast amounts of public money. Within weeks, tax-revenues dropped dramatically and at the same time the government had to spend unprecedented amounts of money to ensure the very structure of our financial institutions could survive. The above should be uncontroversial, it’s merely a dry description of what happened.
However, this narrative is not the accepted version, it has been in fact replaced with a lie: the Labour governments of Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by spending too much (Lie#2). This is false, Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by failing to prevent excessive financial speculation. They did end up spending too much, but this was an effect of the financial crash. Lie #2 is a lie because it inverts the causal chain: what was a consequence is now described as the root cause. Why did this happen? Because spinning the false narrative allows those who can to make more money. Pretending that “spending too much” caused the crash directly justifies reducing the size of the state, e.g. reducing the volume of public services. Reducing public services creates the opportunity of delivering the same services for a profit, it’s not rocket science. Now, I’m not saying that a big state is always better, it is not. All I’m saying is that the policies that followed were based (at least partially) on a lie, and a lie that was allowed to spread and be accepted as fact.
This leads us to Lie#3: to rescue the economy, the only option is/was austerity. At the propaganda level, this lie was sustained by maintaining that “we were living above our means” and that austerity is/was needed because the state budget works like a the household one, which is blatantly false, but feels reasonable. Why is it false? Because the state prints money and legally enforces its use (at the very least by collecting taxes in the state currency), families don’t. This tiny detail immediately breaks the analogy: if the state merely needs more money, it can print more. It is entirely true that doing so without limits would be suicidal (via hyperinflation), but it is nevertheless not true that it all works like a family budget. For example, it is an uncontroversial fact that Keynesian stimuli can work; conversely, it also uncontroversial that austerity harms the economy, even the IMF has now been on record saying that it harms the economy more than expected. Do I need to highlight the key implication? “More than expected” implies:”yes, we already new that austerity harms the economy, we just didn’t think it was so bad”!
We all know what happened next: the coalition government implemented the Conservatives’ agenda, austerity was delivered, Britain enjoyed a double dip recession, the Chancellor’s predictions were never met, which, largely justified by Lie#3, allowed to keep pushing more and more austerity down our throats. So, what does austerity mean? It means less public spending, which means less public services. In other words, those who rely on public services are, by definition, the ones who will bear the grunt. Ultimately, living standards for the bottom half of the population (the half with less money) inevitably degraded. At the same time, inequality increased, adding insult to injury. Still, we do know that the public actually did believe Lies #2 & #3 because, guess what? They voted for more austerity, and (re)elected a Tory government. Go figure.
Still on Sovereignty, a major issue has been about the European Court of Human Rights. The leavers’ claim is that Britain doesn’t need a supra-national institution to protect human rights. This may or may not currently be the case, but it blatantly ignores the reason why the defence of human rights ought to be enforced by supra-national institutions. Question: what kind of entities perpetrate the worse offences against Human Rights? Answer: states and para-states, always. Thus, supra-national institutions are required to effectively defend Human Rights, it’s that simple. Lie#8 is that Britain doesn’t need an external Human Rights watchdog, while it manifestly does (it’s sad and shameful, I know). Still on Sovereignty, much of the rhetoric was aimed at establishing Lie#9: this is the claim that most of UK laws are undemocratically decided by “them” (some faceless, monolithic EU). First of all, this myth has been officially debunked. Second, to sell goods or services in a given market, the rules of the market need to be respected (whether you sit amongst the market regulators or not). Third, it is true that EU institutions are somewhat opaque and byzantine, but that is because they are designed to allow national governments to exert their own influence, not the opposite, as the leave side has systematically implied.