Last night, lead campaigners from both the Leave and the Remain camps participated in the BBC’s live “Great Debate” on the EU referendum at Wembley Arena.
Pounding the table with arguments about unelected Brussels burdening us with regulations, the Leave campaign again did its best to avoid facts. Instead, the appeal was to hard-wired instincts of English exceptionalism The New York Times refers to this as a campaign “with sharp tones of xenophobia, racism, nativism and Islamophobia.”
How does the Leave campaign get away with this on such a consistent basis?
Facts appear not to be a major priority for many Leave voters. That is clear when you look at science. In a ComRes poll of 1,616 prospective voters, Leave supporters were revealed to be much more likely to question science, climate change and evolution.
Vote Leave for climate change denial
Many on the Leave side seem to distrust both the scientific community and British media. Nearly half think scientists and academics have too much influence over British politics. Two in three believe that the media exaggerates the level of scientific consensus on climate change.
This divide is particularly clear when it comes to climate change. One in five Brexit supporters disagree that humans cause climate change. In fact, Leave voters are almost twice as likely as Remain voters to deny manmade climate change.
And when it comes to a far more well-established scientific theory, evolution, Brexit supporters are even more sceptical. Nearly half of Leave voters agree that those who question evolution “have a point”.
This discord does not only pose a challenge for British academics and journalists. Such beliefs also create fertile ground for false claims and emotive statements which are not grounded in reality. And that extends to arbitrary allegations about Europe and immigration.
One of the defining moments of the referendum campaign came when Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston loudly quit Leave. She called the claim Brexit would free up £350 million a week for the NHS “simply not true”. Yet the Leave campaign continued to plaster the false claim on buses. And with one week to go to the vote, pollsters Ipsos Mori found nearly half of Brits still believed it.
The facts point in one direction
Drawing the line directly from science to the uncomfortable referendum debate we find ourselves in may not be clear cut.
But the case of NHS statistics show the way people choose to judge – or not to judge – facts has everything to do with the referendum debate.
After all, there is overwhelming consensus of the damage Britain could do to its economy by leaving the EU. There is evidence from the Bank of England, HM Treasury, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, PwC, Oxford Economics, the Centre for Economic Performance and others.
The Leave campaign would never have been able to make many of its claims if more voters were prone to fact-checking and less prone to fear-mongering.
It’s also worth asking why climate change isn’t higher on the agenda. This is particularly odd given that immigration has been a main point of discussion. Unless we increase our efforts against climate change significantly, future levels of climate refugees will dwarf what we see in Europe today.
Serious topics, however, require careful examination of the facts. And these make it clear that remaining in the EU is the best choice for Britain’s future and for the climate.
Assaad W. Razzouk is a Lebanese-British clean energy entrepreneur, investor and commentator. He is Group Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources.