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Lies, Lies and Those Damned Brexit Statistics

brexit lies
Written by Robin Dunbar

What has been most disappointing about the entire Brexit debate, and particularly its more recent manifestations, is the sheer dishonesty of the claims being made. Not only does it bring politics into disrepute, but it raises serious questions about the democratic process and the entitlement to vote.

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Take the statistics that are widely doing the rounds among Remainers on social media this week: that the current Prime Minister holds no popular mandate because he was elected only by some infinitesmal proportion of the population; that only 35% of the population voted to leave the EU; that the Brexiteers lied when they claimed during the Referendum that £350,000,000 a week could be invested in the NHS; that we should have a second referendum because many leavers have changed their minds; that no one knew that leaving the EU would be so difficult or so damaging.

So let’s take them one by one.

The claim that Boris Johnson wasn’t elected by popular mandate so completely misunderstands the fundamental structure of the British political system that one has to wonder whether those who promulgate it would, or even should, pass the Home Office’s tests for citizenship. Britain, unlike France and the United States, does not have a presidential system whereby we elect a specific individual to be the executive government. We have a representative democracy whereby we elect someone to represent us in a parliament of equals; in practise, for better or for worse, these days we tend to select that person on the basis of the political party on whose behalf they stand, and hence on the basis of the policies the party proposes. Nobody elects the Prime Minister. Indeed, historically the Prime Minister was appointed by the Monarch to promote the monarch’s interests against the troublesome rabble in Westminster. Hence the title Prime Minister. For the last 300 years (effectively since the Hannoverian accession), the Prime Minister has always been the person who can command a majority of votes in Parliament, and since at least mid-Victorian times that has been, by convention, the leader of the largest party. The choice of leader has always been the sole prerogative of the party, and its members. No prime minister in the long history of the Westminster Parliament has ever been elected by popular vote of the electorate.

It is not clear where the claim that only 35% of the population voted to leave the EU comes from. One possibility is that only 35% of the voters in the 2019 EU elections voted for the Brexit and Conservative parties (actually it was just over 39%). That, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that a sizeable minority of the 17% who voted Labour and SNP are actually Leave voters but prefer to vote Labour or SNP in parliamentary elections for sound political reasons that have little to do with Brexit. The other possibility is that it derives from the fact that only 72% of those on the electoral register voted in the Referendum, of whom roughly 52% voted to leave. Ergo, only 52% of 72% = 37% of the entire population actually voted Leave. On that logic, we can just as easily claim that the non-voters were actually all closet Leavers, in which case 28% plus 37% = 65% voted Leave – a slightly larger majority than the 62% that actually voted to Remain in Scotland. Which, by the way, is another bizarre statistic: Scotland is invariably presented as having “voted to Remain” by both the SNP and the media, yet at 62% it was very far from being an overwhelming majority – an example of the well known logical fallacy of concluding that “all” follows from “some”.

I hesitate to raise the wretched number on the bus yet again, but it seems remarkable that this hoary old chestnut keeps coming back. Actually, it is the only evidence ever produced to support the claim that the Leave campaign was deliberately misleading. If this really is how people saw it (and I have been assured that 99% of people interpreted it literally), then it surely raises some very serious questions about validity of the democratic process. The point being made was a very simple one: we send a lot of money to the EU each year and, rebate or no rebate, project funds or no project funds that we get back, we do not decide how that money is spent. That decision is wholly in the hands of an unelected bureaucracy over whom we have no control, and who haven’t filed accounts for such a long time that, were they a business, they would have been prosecuted by HMRC a decade ago. The point was quite obviously that, if we so choose, we could spend that money on the NHS. Ultimately, as with all such electoral “promises”, how the money gets spent depends on negotiations between ministers in closed discussion in cabinet as Ministries battle out with each other for their spending priorities – subject, of course, to the baleful and invariably Scrooge-like oversight of the Treasury and its accountants. No government has ever done everything it promised in its manifesto, though I don’t recall any great national uprising in protest as a result. Some people evidently have conveniently short memories.

It is difficult to understand the claim that we need a second referendum – other than as a cynical attempt to overturn the will of the people (a tactic, by the way, resorted to occasionally by other European governments, few of whom have a tradition of democratic government older than a century, and most a great deal less). We have effectively already had three votes on whether or not to leave the EU – the original 2016 Referendum, the 2017 election (when the two main political parties both stood on explicit manifestos to implement the decision of the 2016 Referendum), and the 2019 EU parliamentary elections (which catapulted the Brexit Party, which hadn’t existed until a few weeks before the election, into pole position with by far the largest share of the vote). Those who promote a second referendum invariably claim that many 2016 Leave voters have since changed their minds and there would now be a clear majority in favour of rescinding Article 50 and remaining in the EU. Given the results of previous elections, one wonders where they get their evidence from. Even the opinion polls are resolutely stuck at being too close to call. I personally haven’t come across any 2016 Leave voters who regretted their decision, but I have come across Remainers who regret having voted Remain and wouldn’t do so again. Yet this is a claim I have heard repeated by senior Parliamentarians, admittedly mostly of a Liberal persuasion, as well as humble members of the electorate. If this was advertising claim, it wouldn’t pass the Trade Descriptions Act and would probably deserve prosecution for false advertising.

It may well be true that many people did not appreciate how difficult it would be to leave the EU, but I suspect most of those were actually Remain voters. Most Leave voters simply wanted to leave, and be done with any negotiations, knowing that the EU would be intransigent and, unlike a single sovereign state, would be incapable of engaging in any meaningful form of negotiation. We are in the mess that we are in precisely because the May government did its best to try and build a consensus that satisfied the Remainers by keeping us half in. I am not in the least surprised at how difficult this has proved to be. The EU is not an economically rational institution: it is an ideological institution, built on the very undemocratic model of the French political system, driven by religious zeal to adhere to the letter of its principles even in the face of its own citizens’ objections. It is the ultimate case of “we know better than you plebs what is good for you.”  It seems that Remainers had (and, in my experience, have) very little real idea of how the EU actually works, how its political structures are organised, who has the reins of power, or how they have behaved towards other member states (notably Greece).

By the same token, they parrot economists’ models of the consequences of leaving the EU without any understanding of how these models are arrived at – a state of affairs for which economists at both the Treasury and the Bank of England probably deserve censure for failing to make this clear, for failing to admit that models are only models, for failing to admit that their models don’t have an especially impressive record for predicting the future behaviour of either markets or economies, and for failing to point out that an economy is not something that is fixed in the firmament forever but changes dynamically on a scale of decades. What is good for the economy today will be irrelevant, or even bad, as little as a decade hence – whereas the political system will remain in place forever, short of an invasion or a revolution.  Failure to recognise this is tantamount to insisting that we stay in the EU because it began life as a coal (and steel) trading block and our nineteenth century economy was built on coal. Um…but we don’t have a coal mining industry anymore….  It’s the equivalent of locking oneself into a room and throwing away the key when the entire street outside has been demolished and its economy moved on.

The death of democracy? Democracy died as soon after the 2016 Referendum as it took the shocked occupants of the Palace of Westminster to start trying to find arcane and obscure parliamentary mechanisms that might allow them to obstruct, or even reverse, the results of the Referendum, notwithstanding the views of their constituents. Crying foul at the current government’s attempts to implement its policies is little short of culpable dishonesty. Ironically, none of these ardent defenders of parliamentary democracy seem to be aware that they only have the vote now because Lord Grey’s Whig (Liberal) government resorted to the device of proroguing Parliament in order to allow the Great Reform Bill of 1832 that extended the vote and laid the foundations for our modern constituency system to be tabled for a third time: it had been voted down twice by vested interests in the House of Commons and the Lords, and convention prevented a bill being laid before parliament more than twice (as Speaker Bercow so helpfully reminded Mrs May when generously allowing her a third attempt but refusing a fourth).

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.

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Robin Dunbar