The Leave campaign could have been different. It might have been the honourable debate that Giles Fraser wishes it was, and that Vote Leave initially promised it would be, concentrating on legitimate concerns such as the EU’s decision-making process, TTIP and the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals. It might have been honest about the economic risk, arguing that the gamble was worth taking. If it had lost, then it would have lost with dignity, and without poisoning the well of political discourse.
That is not, of course, the campaign we saw.
Rather than risk losing on the facts, Leave chose to try and win on lies. Lies like the utterly discredited £350m-a-week figure that they were brazen enough to print on the side of a bus. Lies like the claim that Turkey’s EU membership is imminent (it’s not) and that the UK will have no veto (it does). Lies like UKIP’s instantly notorious Breaking Point poster of refugees in Slovenia who have no legal right to enter Britain. Huge, shameless lies. Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool Law School calls it “dishonesty on an industrial scale”.
The biggest lie, the Death Star lie from which all the other lies are launched, is the claim that everything wrong in Britain is down to the EU. Can’t find a decent job? Can’t get the school place you want? Can’t get a GP appointment the next day? Can’t get on the housing ladder? Brexit, they say, is the silver bullet that will fix them all. It was astonishing to hear free-market libertarian Nigel Farage pretend to care about those issues on the Today programme yesterday when all he really wanted to do was pin them on EU migrants. He has no serious plan for the future. When Farage says he wants to take his country back he really means “back”: back to an idealised past before foreigners spoiled everything. But you can never turn the clock back, least of all with a single decision. Another lie.
You see a version of this on the left as well. Left-wing Brexiter Lisa McKenzie writes: “In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything,” from affordable housing to pub closures. But it is not a referendum on those things, nor will Brexit solve them. One can respect with the anger and frustration of people who feel left behind by globalisation without endorsing the wrong solution. If someone tells you they’re ill, you don’t insist they feel great, but nor do you prescribe the wrong medicine with terrible side effects. McKenzie says a lot about working-class unrest, all of it true, but nothing about why Brexit is the right answer. Nothing about how it will ameliorate the adverse effects of globalisation and neoliberalism. I can see why the right wants workers to vote against their own economic interests — that’s an old strategy — but it’s dismaying to see people on the left selling a similar brand of snake oil.
Unfortunately, lies work. A recent Ipsos MORI poll recently found that Britons vastly overrated the number of EU migrants, the number claiming benefits and the percentage of the EU budget spent on bureaucracy, while seriously underrating the amount of EU investment the UK receives. According to the LSE, far from being pushed around the UK got its own way over EU laws 87% of the time between 2009-2015. Many Brexit supporters admit they haven’t been adversely affected by immigration and live in areas with relatively low levels but fear it anyway. Of course, the Leave campaign can’t claim all the credit when for years tabloids have been seeding the ground with distortions and scare stories while politicians have glibly blamed the beast of Brussels for their own failings.
For all these reasons I believe the left-wing case for Brexit has become untenable. Giles Fraser claims “It’s not who you vote with — it’s what you vote for.” He writes: “A vote to leave is not a vote for Farage or Johnson. It won’t make Nigel an MP or Boris the PM. This is not a vote about the next government of the UK, or whether the NHS is safe in Johnson’s hands.” On the contrary it is all of those things and it’s self-indulgent to believe that conscience liberates him from facing up to the consequences. (Paul Mason, an instinctive Brexiter but a realist, recognises this.)
One should at least feel queasy about voting for a result that will delight Vladimir Putin, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, the BNP and the EDL, empowering demagogues, nativists and charlatans. More pressingly, if British voters choose to leave the EU on Thursday they will be handing the keys to the country to the people who ran this shabby, mendacious, hateful campaign.
A post-EU Britain will not be shaped by Giles Fraser but by a government of dogmatic neoliberals whose ideal is Thatcherism on steroids. For all their faux-populist rage against “the elites”, the Tory Brexiters are simply a different brand of elite. These are the people — Johnson, Gove, Grayling, Duncan Smith, possibly even Farage — who will be responsible for the divorce settlement. They will be in charge of the following:
- Guiding the economy through what nine out of 10 economists predict will be a traumatic, self-induced shock that will hurt the low-paid most of all.
- Maintaining, let alone improving, public services amid a likely fall in GDP and an extension of austerity.
- Negotiating years of new trade deals, including ones with former EU partners who they have spent a long time trashing.
- Deciding the precarious fate of EU citizens currently resident in the UK.
- Making up for the loss of EU subsidies everywhere from farming to the arts.
- Investing in hospitals, schools and house-building, because none of those shortfalls will be solved simply by blocking EU migrants.
- Preserving the countless rights and protections for workers that will no longer be guaranteed by the EU.
- Taking leadership on international crises such as refugees and climate change.
- Holding the UK together after England has decided the fate of the more pro-Remain Scotland and Northern Ireland.
That would be a tall order for the most noble and gifted politicians you could imagine. Have the Leave campaigners given us any reason to believe that they can be trusted with those tasks? That they are fit to remake Britain?
The damage they have done will last long beyond Thursday. The Leave campaign is a grim example of post-truth politics and the atavistic roar of “paranoid populism” that also animates the continental far right and the Trump campaign. It’s Michael Gove saying, in the face of evidence from economists, businesspeople, scientists, environmentalists, artists, trade unions, universities, charities and world leaders, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” It’s conspiracy theories, smears and demonisation. It’s blatantly courting racism, then feigning outrage whenever anybody calls it out. It’s exploiting the anxieties of the poorest citizens with xenophobia and lies. It’s stirring up rage and hatred for short-term gain and damn the consequences. If they win it will send a message that the basest form of politics works.
Thanks to this wretched referendum, says The Economist: “The currency of facts will be debased, that of stunts inflated, that of conviction sidelined. It will be de rigueur to question an opponent’s motives before his arguments, sneer at experts, prefer volume to accuracy and disparage concession, compromise and moderation.”
That’s why it is sickening hypocrisy for Leave to whine that the murder of Jo Cox will lead people to vote with their hearts rather than their heads, having shamelessly appealed to the heart’s worst instincts.
Over the past few days I’ve heard about a lot of Leave voters and undecideds switching to Remain because they don’t trust these people. They don’t want to reward this ugly, debased, destructive kind of politics. They don’t believe that it will lead to a happier, more confident Britain. They sense that they are being taken for a ride. Like Sayeeda Warsi, they have had enough. I’ve also spoken to many Remain supporters who are more determined than ever to go to the polling station and be heard.
The Brexiters had a chance to show us what country they want Britain to be and they have shown it at its very worst. If they lose, the Leave camp will complain that they have been misrepresented. On the contrary, I think they will lose because a growing number of people know all too well the kind of people they’re dealing with. As with Zac Goldsmith’s sordid dog-whistle campaign for London mayor, it would be appropriate if Leave’s own gutter tactics cost them victory.