Theresa May says the reason she is continuing to lead Britain out of the European Union is that she is “delivering on the will of the people “. This is in spite of her previous convictions, eloquently expressed two years ago, and very probably in spite of her better judgement today. The same can be said of the many MPs—including my own, Damian Hinds—who previously made up the parliamentary majority for Remain but who now claim this same justification for their altered course. Even pro-EU newspapers, the Observer for example, have declined to question the validity of the June 2016 vote as a democratic expression of the will of the people.
But I question it. I questioned it immediately after the referendum, writing a letter to our local paper pointing out that the Leave camp had secured its result
- “by telling lies,
- by deliberately inciting hatred and xenophobia,
- by allowing its media to give an exclusively partisan account of the issues,
- and by shamelessly urging voters to discount the wisdom of ‘experts’“.
For these and other reasons I said that calling the result ‘the will of the people’, would be “to say the least, disingenuous” and it would be irresponsible not to question its validity. My letter was given prominence in the Alton Herald and a great many people, not just in the town, went out of their way to thank me for it and tell me how strongly they agreed with me.
Since then nothing has happened to raise the slightest doubt in my mind about the points that I made. On the contrary, some have been strongly reinforced. To give one example, deep in a long Spectator article describing how the referendum was won, the director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, asked himself the question “Would we have won without £350m/NHS?” and replied ” All our research and the close result strongly suggests No“.
But now, with a YouGov poll showing a majority believing Britain was wrong to back Brexit (final point below), a whole list of additional reasons have accumulated to make it even clearer that what is happening was never the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the 2016 referendum, and that the government is pursuing its ‘Brexit’ agenda on a false premise. Here is my attempt to set out these further arguments:
- Anecdotal but widespread evidence that people’s votes were cast for reasons which had nothing to do with the real issue (and, let us not forget, in the general expectation of Remain winning.)
- Everyone was in ignorance of the immensely complex implications. (This was inevitable and entirely understandable. It is now quite clear that nobody understood these implications.)
- Some voted as a general reaction against irksome restrictions/regulations/safeguards which are inevitable in any modern society, but which for years, encouraged by the overwhelmingly Europhobic media, people had been habitually blaming on ‘Brussels’.
There was the notorious bendy bananas myth, but a better example of this was the staged banning, of obsolete, inefficient (in other words hot) light-bulbs. The Daily Mail and others campaigned against this, ignoring the fact that pressure for this reform largely originated in Britain and that it was in fact a triumph of enlightened international action, enabled by the EU, of which we should all be extremely proud!
- Many voted as a general protest against austerity, the Conservative government, David Cameron, George Osborne, and against what was probably perceived, especially in strongly Leave-voting areas, as a posh metropolitan elite.
- Some older people voted because they couldn’t forgive the Germans for the Second World War—one of these is a dear friend of mine who made sure of getting her postal vote in early. Two others separately gave this as their reason while talking to fellow-canvassers in our High Street (extrapolate that to the whole country!).
- There was even ignorance of what the EU actually was (for a brief period after the announcement of the result ‘What is the EU?‘ became the second commonest search term on Google.)
- Subsequent arrogant and bullying behaviour by the triumphant Leavers.
- Attempted suppression of comment and debate, including debate in parliament.
- The extension of the hate campaign which had been so successful against foreigners to include the ‘remoaners’, ‘whingers’, ‘traitors’, ‘enemies of the people’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘citizens of nowhere’—people like me in fact—who had the courage to speak out for almost half the nation.
- The appropriation of our national flag and the very names ‘Democracy’ , ‘Patriotism’—even ‘decent people‘—by the divisive anti-EU cause, which still tries to deny the fact that people can be loyal and proud members of a hierarchy of nested communities – family, locality, country, continent, planet, and so on.
- Vicious attacks and threats against individual MPs and senior members of the judiciary for scrupulously and courageously doing what is unequivocally their duty and their job. To take a relatively mild example of this, instead of answering the legitimate arguments of the Governor of the Bank of England, they repeated try to ‘shout him into silence’.
(It seems to me that the failure by any of the prominent advocates of Leave to repudiate these outrageous abuses lays them open to the charge of complicity, and casts grave doubts on their fitness to be responsible leaders of a law-abiding society.
If I were a convinced Leaver I would, at the very least, be apologising to my fellow citizens for this behaviour and seeking to build bridges instead of acting in ways that exacerbate division.)
- Things have changed since the votes were cast.
- The election of Donald Trump in America—a possibility which seemed remote or even impossible at the time of the referendum—and the unfolding story of his erratic behaviour in office, has produced a fundamental change in the international geopolitical environment. Carol Cadwalladr puts it neatly: “Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade – in a radical and alarming way.”
- The undermining of confidence in objective truth in public life and especially in journalism. This phenomenon blossomed during and after the American presidential election, but was already established in this country during the referendum campaign. Social and print media are thus employed to disseminate blatant and deliberate misinformation. Having established this environment of distrust, any opinion or fact that is challenging or inconvenient (not just the size of an inauguration crowd) can then be routinely attacked and neutralised by the label ‘fake news’.
- “Not what we voted for.”—unforeseen consequences of the Brexit process:
- Contrary to sweeping promises, the exit process is not easy and is not going well.
- We are not in a strong position in negotiations with Europe. It is increasingly clear that we need Europe more than it needs us.
- We are not in a strong position in negotiations with anyone else.
- Far from hastening a predicted disintegration of the EU, the example of Britain’s referendum appears to have strengthened Europe and weakened anti-EU sentiment within the populations of the remaining 27.
- ‘Hard’, ‘crash-out’, or ‘no-deal’ Brexit, i.e. leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, was specifically ruled out: Daniel Hannan, a leading behind-the-scenes architect of Leave, declared “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market” Yet the extreme advocates of Brexit are now demanding that the 2016 vote be treated as an unquestionable instruction to do exactly that.
- The NHS is losing large numbers of precious EU staff, as are agriculture and other vital sectors of our economy. The ill-effects of making these people feel unwelcome in Britain are incalculable.
- The NHS may be opened up to US investors as a necessary sweetener for a new trade deal.
- The unfolding evidence of unpreparedness and incompetence, even delusion, on the part of the small group of politicians who have been entrusted with the implementation of the Brexit process.
- The fact that, rather than a balanced, cross-party group of the most competent people available, the future of the country is being decided, potentially for generations to come, by a small, unrepresentative group defined by their obsessional anti-EU convictions.
- Previously unacceptable public expressions of xenophobic hatred have been unleashed and to some extent legitimised.
The deliberate cultivation of hatred is something that has been suppressed in this country and elsewhere for a long time, partly because it is so easy to do, so powerful, and so corrupting. George Saunders, in his 2017 Man Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo speaks of “our revived human proclivity for hatred-inspired action“.
The notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster appeared, as it turned out, on the same day that the British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a zealot in a frenzy of xenophobic hatred. Its image of Nigel Farage, in front of a picture of desperate refugees fleeing the war in Syria, had nothing to do with the EU or with Brexit but was deliberately designed to incite this gut reaction. “This was not done on the hoof,” boasted Arron Banks afterwards, “We played to win – we weren’t going to play Queensberry rules.”
This explosive growth of targeted hatred has been intensified by the new ubiquity of social media. Its almost simultaneous appearance during the United States presidential election, again employed overwhelmingly by only one of the two sides, is one of the features that may account the widely-perceived similarities between the Leave and the Trump campaigns.
- Although there are indications they may soon be forced to back down, the government has persistently refused to release 58 studies of the economic impact of leaving the EU (on the grounds that to do so would weaken our negotiating position). However, we do know that:
· the UK government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds, and hiring around 3,000 bureaucrats and lawyers, to cope with Brexit.
· Chancellor Philip Hammond admits that a Brexit ‘no deal’ will mean less money for NHS and social care. (Thus even further undermining the £350m a week slogan which Boris Johnson has recently reiterated).
- Possible subversion of the democratic process by a new and largely hidden technique of ‘data mining’ which enables the targeting of individual people whose susceptibility to persuasion is revealed by personality profiles derived from the analysis of millions of Facebook posts.
- This new technique was used by one side only.
- Vote Leave and Leave.UK paid millions of pounds to tech companies Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ for these services and subsequently claimed that they had swung the referendum (In the same way that these techniques and companies were subsequently claimed to have secured the election of Donald Trump).
- Vote Leave’s director Dominic Cummings has said: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
- This was allegedly enabled by an American billionaire, Robert Mercer, partly as a trial run for the subsequent Presidential campaign.
- Questions about the use of ‘dark money’, and possible illegality in the funding of the Leave campaign which have been raised in Parliament and described by Andrea Leadsom, replying for the Government, as ‘incredibly important‘.
The fact that the almost £9m which Aaron (also Arron, amongst other names) Banks says he contributed in cash, loans and services to pro-Brexit causes was the biggest donation in British political history.
And Banks’ reported comments: “We were just cleverer than the regulators and the politicians. Of course we were”, adding that he didn’t break the law, rather that he “pushed the boundary of everything, right to the edge. It was war.”
- The fact that the agenda continues to be set, and popular perceptions continue to be distorted, by a predominantly anti-EU national press which is owned by a handful of extremely rich, foreign or foreign-domiciled men, whose motives for fighting relentlessly for Brexit are obscure.
Joris Luyendijk, a Netherlander who is leaving Britain after living here with his family for five years, puts it this way in the November 2017 edition of Prospect Magazine: “…Not only the division, but the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about ‘foreign judges’ and the need to ‘take back control’ when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?”
- On the day when Theresa May triggered Article 50, Nigel Farage reportedly raised his pint glass to toast “Well done Bannon, Well done, Breitbart. You helped with this hugely.”
If true, this bizarre tribute to two leaders of the American far right is a disturbing pointer to what is alleged to be a pattern of cooperation between avowed opponents of liberal democracy on both sides of the Atlantic and possibly in Russia, suggesting that they may have conspired together to influence our EU referendum.
- We now know that the scheme for securing the economic future of Britain which the advocates of Brexit envisage rests in large part on the reduction of taxation and public services and on the rescinding of regulations, environmental / domestic / workplace safeguards, and of workers’ rights. That such a ‘bonfire of regulations‘ would be against the interests of the majority of ordinary people is surely beyond dispute.
- Electoral issues
- Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%)
Leave: 17,410,742 (51.9%)
Total Electorate: 46,500,001
Rejected Ballots: 25,359
Didn’t vote: 12,948,018
Therefore: Didn’t vote for Brexit: 29,089,259 (63% of the electorate)
- Polls suggest that of those who didn’t vote (possibly because some accepted the predictions that Remain was bound to win) a large majority would have chosen Remain.
- 16-18 year olds, who overwhelmingly would have chosen to Remain, have a strong case that they should have been enfranchised in a vote so crucial for their futures.
- Slightly less clear-cut is the argument that the 2.5 million EU nationals resident in Britain should also have been given a vote. Probably a large majority of these would also have voted Remain.
- MPs who raised their concerns about the disenfranchisement of these two groups prior to the vote are said to have been reassured on the grounds that the referendum result would be advisory rather than binding. I have raised this with my MP and in his reply he did not deny it.
- A recent YouGov poll indicates there is now an overall majority for Remain. This adds to a pattern of poll evidence that a majority of the British electorate almost certainly want to remain in the EU. As time passes and the population ages, this majority is likely to increase.
- Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%)
Of course there will be faults and omissions in this list – it is no more than the honest product of my common sense. But at least it can’t be written off on the grounds that I am an expert.
What is clear is that several of these factors could have swung the vote sufficiently to produce the marginal victory for Leave. Indeed, as I have shown, several of them were triumphantly claimed to have done so. Acting together, however, they overwhelmingly invalidate the pretence that it is, or ever was, the ‘will of the people’ to separate Britain from the European Union at all, let alone unconditionally. If politicians continue to use the 2016 vote as an excuse for switching off their judgement and their responsibility to do what is best for our country, not to mention the wider world, let them be warned that a better list than this will be raised by history against their memory.
I have found writing this piece uncomfortable and disturbing. Parts of the story strike me as being profoundly sinister. I am also aware of the hatred and abuse that such things provoke in the current polarised environment (see above). Nonetheless, they are things which need to be said and yet, on the whole, are not being said. It seems obvious to me that they need to be heard and thought about by responsible Leavers much more than by Remainers. Unpleasant though the task has been I have felt compelled to persist with it because I see some very, very important issues at stake for our democracy and for our country, which extend far beyond the issue of EU membership, crucial though that obviously is. And for some reason I have a ridiculous idea that I might actually make a tiny difference.
All my life, ever since my two years as an embassy child in America, I have been intensely patriotic. Attending a conference in Reykjavik this summer, however, I felt, for the first time in my life, actually humiliated by my nationality. I do not like that feeling, and I do not want our foreign friends to think that some of us were aware all along of the emptiness and folly of the reasons being given for the mistake we were making, but were too lazy, intimidated, or—most un-British of all—fatalistic to speak out. That really would be something to be ashamed about.
26 February 2018 : I have now added an eleventh item for this list in a further post whilst at the same time quoting a particularly thoughtful and pertinent reaction I have received from America.