Jake Mogg is associated, in the popular mind at least, with Latin, so perhaps we can open with the Latin axioms suppressio veri and suggestio falsi : the one means to suppress the truth, the other to suggest a lie. They are often coupled, the action of suppressing some truth – e.g. omitting key facts from an account – amounting to the suggestion of a falsehood.
This morning, not for the first time, Mr Mogg referred to the 2016 referendum as ‘the biggest vote in our history’. It is a formulation that others who share his views also use, such as Mr Charles Moore [see here]
The claim is clearly intended to impress: it suggests that a special significance attaches to the referendum (and its result) in terms of its sheer scale: the implication is that the 2016 referendum is more entitled to respect than any comparable vote in our history and that it ‘must be respected’ and to go against it would be ‘a betrayal of democracy’.
But what does Mr Mogg’s claim actually mean?
It is typical of his utterances in being an unqualified ‘sound-bite’, casually slipped into his conversation without any explanation or elaboration. The effect of this – if unchallenged – is that it lodges in the listener’s mind as something that is both significant and true, something they will repeat themselves should any discussion of the matter come up (and I have heard it parroted by commentators, I am sure).
But is it true, and if it is, is it significant? The short answer to both questions is no, to which I should add the qualification that the only sense in which it might be called true is insignificant, and in every other case it is untrue, so the question of its significance does not arise.
As noted above, Mogg’s claim is unqualified, and might mean any one of several things. Let us consider each in turn.
Was the 2016 referendum ‘the biggest vote in our history’ in the sense that it represents the largest number of people ever to take part in a democratic vote in this country?
No. That was the 1992 General Election, when a total of 33,614,874 votes were cast, as against 33,577,342 in the referendum.
Was it the largest percentage of the electorate ever to turn out in a democratic vote, then?
No. That was the 1950 General election, when 83.9% of the electorate turned out. As a matter of fact, the referendum turnout, 72.2%, is slightly below the average for UK votes from 1918 to 2017, which is 72.9%
But isn’t 17,410,742 the largest ever number of votes cast for a single issue in our history? Surely that is what Mr Mogg means?
Maybe. This is the case where the claim might be true, but is of doubtful significance. Some context is essential. The expression ‘In our history’ is misleading – intentionally so, I would suggest, with its implication of a vast sweep of time in which a great number of votes have taken place, with this one being far and away the most significant.
Yet the total number of occasions on which the UK has voted on a single issue is 3.
In the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011, 13,013,123 voted to retain ‘first past the post’.
The other two referendums were effectively on the same issue: should we remain in the EU in 2016 or its predecessor, the EEC, in 1975.
In terms of actual numbers very slightly more people voted to leave the EU in 2016 than voted to remain in the EEC in 1975, so this is the only case in which Mr Mogg’s claim (that the 2016 referendum is ‘the biggest vote in our history’) could be said to have any truth in it at all.
However, the figures are worth comparing: in 1975, 17,378,581 people voted to remain, as against the 17,410,742 who voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. So the latter figure is greater by 32,161 – a difference of 0.18%.
The difference is so slight that any claim for significance in terms of size – and that is what Mr Mogg is saying, ‘the biggest vote in our history’ – applies equally to both: if one is ‘massive’ ( a claim that is also made for it) then so is the other; in round terms, they are same – 17.4 million. The implication that the 2016 referendum vote is uniquely huge, and so dwarfs all others in importance, is surely false. Of the three votes the UK has had on a single issue, in terms of actual numbers, two have been equally large, with one fractionally larger (0.18%) than the other. That is as much truth as Mr Mogg can claim for his oft-repeated statement.
However, it should be borne in mind that the electorate in 1975 was substantially smaller than that in 2016, so that the actual number voting is of less significance than the proportion of the electorate it represents in deciding which is the largest vote on a single issue in our history.
In 1975, the electorate was 40,086,677, so 17,378,581 amounts to 43.35%;
In 2016, the electorate was 46,500,001, so 17,410,742 amounts to 37.4%.
So in percentage terms, the largest proportion of the UK electorate to vote for a single issue, on the three occasions when that has been possible, is 43.35% in 1975.
It is the job of journalists to challenge the claims made by politicians and subject them to scrutiny. Why has this not been done in the case of the oft-repeated claim that the 2016 referendum was ‘the biggest vote in our history’? It took me, an amateur, a couple of hours to find the relevant data from the comfort of my chair. Those charged with keeping our politicians to account must do better.