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How the Brexit campaign lied to us – and got away with it

The Leave camp promised us all a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a pony.

Whenever something cataclysmic happens in politics, there’s a temptation to trace it back to a single moment that set everything in motion: the shot heard around the world. Or, in the case of the night in the Commons bar where Eric Joyce lamped a fellow MP, prompting a fishy by-election in Falkirk that led to a fundamental reform of the Labour party rules, which enabled the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the punch that changed politics.

You can’t always identify the flap of the butterfly’s wings that creates a hurricane. The EU referendum result was driven by many factors: class, geography, differential turnout, culture and education. Even the broad conclusions – more older voters turned out and they were heavily pro-Brexit; cities went for Remain – must be qualified: why was Liverpool a win for Remain while Sunderland picked Leave?

If there is one sentence that explains the referendum result, though, it’s this one from the website of the Advertising Standards Agency. “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.

The brains behind the Leave victory discovered this loophole in their earlier incarnation as the NoToAV campaign, promising that the cost of a new voting system would deprive babies in incubators or squaddies in Afghanistan of a spurious figure plucked from the air. And they got away with it.

Will they pull off the same trick again? It was noticeable how quickly the twin planks of the Leave campaign – extra money for the health service, and the implicit promise to cut immigration by “taking back control” of our borders – fell apart. On Good Morning Britain just hours after the result was declared, Nigel Farage decried the NHS pledge as a “mistake” (he was not part of the official Leave campaign that made it).

That evening, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told Newsnight that “taking back control” of immigration didn’t necessarily mean cutting it. He advocated joining the single market: meaning that if Turkey does join the EU, Britain will be obliged to accept freedom of movement for its citizens. And we won’t have a veto on Turkish accession. (When we leave the EU, we will also lose automatic access to the scheme by which failed asylum-seekers are returned to the country in which they first claimed sanctuary.)

The first few days after the referendum felt like an extended period of gaslighting – being told that things you could distinctly remember happening had not, in fact, happened. How could anyone think that the Leave campaign had promised an extra £350m for the NHS? The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”. My eyes flicked from his pious face to Twitter, where someone had posted a picture of him standing next to the campaign bus. Its slogan read: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Then I looked at the pinned Tweet for the chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, which reads: “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.” These people promised us a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a Shetland pony.

More gaslighting was to come in Boris Johnson’s announcement, made through the impeccably democratic, anti-elitist medium of his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column. Of course, we would retain access to the single market, said Johnson. Britons would be allowed to travel and live freely wherever they wanted in Europe, while we could also “take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry”. Unfortunately, to use a phrase beloved by my dad, if Johnson thinks Angela Merkel will give the UK everything we want without giving anything back, he must be crackers.

The debate about free movement will dominate politics all summer, as the Tory leadership contest runs until 2 September. The future direction of the country will be seen through the prism of tactical advantage within the Conservatives. A split is already emerging on the right: Michael Gove, who promised withdrawal from the single market during the campaign, has aligned himself with Johnson. On 28 June, sources close to Johnson said he had been “tired” when he wrote the column, and it would be “vetted” to avoid mixed messages in future.

For the Tories, an unappealing choice lies ahead. It looks as though Britain’s economy is already contracting, thanks to the uncertainty brought on by Brexit. Their 2015 Tory election campaign, which asserted that Ed Miliband was a “threat” to our economic
security, feels blackly humorous.

Some of the pain could be mitigated if Britain accepted a deal close to what we have now. But is that what people voted for? The Leave campaign told voters over and over that mass immigration was frightening and it should be curtailed, and that public services were about to be pumped full of cash clawed back from Brussels. Right now, it’s the Remainers who are angry. But what happens when those who backed Brexit to get back at the political class discover that they have been taken for a ride?

The Leave campaign won by pretending there are simple answers to our problems. They spurned nuance, compromise and trade-offs. They won an astonishing and unexpected victory. But at what price? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.