Today, the electorate of the UK goes to vote in its referendum over membership of the EU. It is a referendum which, by any admission, has resulted in the most controversial campaigning, which has plumbed the depths of the collective psyche of the nation. If this experience is anything to go by, there will not be another referendum in the UK for at least a generation.
One of the most obvious problems has been that the question being put to the electorate has, in the large part, to be judged on facts. Yet time after time proponents and opponents have claimed ‘facts’ which others have as flatly contradicted. For those trying to decide how to vote on the basis of evaluating the opposing claims, it has posed an impossible task. Taking the campaigns at face value, they have made the vote impossible.
We are well used to political campaigns for elections, where each candidate makes promises which we all know will at the very least be changed, if not actually broken if they were to win. We can then choose between the candidates on the basis of the attractiveness of their promises to us, and our judgement of their credibility.
The problem for the referendum is much more fundamental. I illustrate it with one claim, over plans for the future admission to the EU of Turkey.
Here is a clear statement of ‘fact’ made in yesterday’s case by the official Leave campaign:
This claim has featured in almost all the literature and statements by Leave campaigners, both official and unofficial.
This has been examined by several other and much more independent bodies. Perhaps the best account is given by the BBC here:
There is no shadow of doubt whatsoever – no matter whether you think that the UK should be in or out of the EU – that the claim that Turkey “is set to join” the EU is completely false, unless you change the meaning of the words “is set to join” to mean something totally different from their current meaning in modern English.
This false claim is then used graphically to fuel an unwritten implication that, once Turkey and the other countries join the EU, then many of their population will migrate to the UK, unless the UK leaves the EU – the heart of most of the campaigns favouring the UK leaving.
The problem with this is that to restrict those campaigning in the referendum from publishing such demonstrably incorrect statements would constrain their free speech. We are only required to tell the truth in very limited sets of circumstances, such as when under oath in a court of law. In those, there is an authority which can judge the veracity of what we claim, in a way which should be completely impartial.
To try to ban false claims like this from referendum campaigns would be an intolerable restraint on free speech, and impossible to enforce. Taking a campaigning group to a court to rake through the factual basis of its publications and other statements would be absurd.
On the other hand, to let this stand, and to influence large numbers of those voting in the referendum, is clearly absurd. It reduces such an important decision to who was the most effective at convincing the public of their lies – a propagandum, not a rational judgement. If the voters were all meticulously-researching postgraduates, they might be able to dig their way through the forest of lies and half-truths and arrive at wise decisions. I’m afraid that the hypothetical person on the Clapham bus is hardly likely to be able to do so.
There are two potential solutions which appear to be worth exploring further. The first is to make campaigns and campaigners fully accountable for the ‘facts’ which they claim. As all promotional political literature has to give the name and address of its publisher, it would not be hard to bring them to account. The snag is that the volume of such material, and the large number of publishers, would make accountability of no consequence in any campaign.
The other solution is, I fancy, the only possible: that UK politicians realise that in this age when it is so easy to lie, lie again, and shout your lies so often and loudly that a lot of people believe them, referendums are a catastrophe in waiting. Let’s hope that the outcome, at least, is not so disastrous as the campaign has been.