Was there ever such a fine piece of nonsense?

 
I am grateful to Caroline Flint MP for providing such a clear and succinct statement of the nonsensical ‘second referendum = betrayal of democracy’ argument that we hear so often.

Pause this clip after the opening sentence and ask yourself what exactly she is saying

“The breakdown of trust in politics if we try to turn this over by a second referendum will be hard to repair.”

It is one of those statements that have the ring of something forceful and definite, yet if we consider it closely – by asking what is actually being said – it turns out to be utter nonsense.

There are two undefined terms here – ‘we’ and ‘this’. What does each stand for?

‘this’ presumably refers to something that could be overturned by a second referendum and probably means the decision to leave the European Union.

‘we’ could mean either those who have it in their power to call a second referendum – politicians in parliament – or those who, by voting in such a referendum, might overturn the decision to leave the European Union – the British electorate.

But if it is the first, how could politicians turn over the decision to leave the EU by calling a referendum? All that does is afford the electorate a chance to have their say; it is up to the electorate what they vote for.

But if we take ‘we’ to mean the electorate, then Ms Flint is saying ‘if the British electorate try to turn this over by a second referendum, then the breakdown in trust of politicians will be hard to repair.’ That does not make a great deal of sense either, since the electorate cannot try to overturn the decision by a second referendum, though they might well overturn it by voting in one, should the politicians grant them the opportunity. But if they did that, why would a nigh-irreparable breakdown of trust in politicians result?

That, perhaps, is the nub of it – what Ms Flint seems to be saying is ‘If we, the politicians, grant the electorate a second referendum and they overturn the decision to leave the EU by voting to remain, then there will be a breakdown of trust in politicians that will be hard to repair.’ – but on whose part?

Should parliament belatedly decide to grant the people a chance to have their say on the grisly shambles that has resulted since the first referendum, I can well imagine that they will vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU; after all, as I never tire from saying, the 2016 referendum showed that only a minority had any desire to leave in the first place. But rather than causing a breakdown in trust, such an outcome might begin to heal the breakdown that has already taken place.

No: the only people who will be disgruntled if the British people vote to remain in the EU will be the minority who want to leave, who thought – against all expectation and reason – that they were going to get what they wanted. But if the British people vote to remain, what grounds would they have for complaint? And who is Ms Flint, or any politician, to deny the British people that opportunity?

If there is anything that is undemocratic and liable to further destroy our faith in politicians, it is denying the people a chance to have their say now that the true shape of Brexit has emerged for all to see.

The danger of licensing ignorance

Suella Braverman is not someone I had heard of (and I doubt if I shall hear of her again) but I am grateful to her for a classic instance of the besetting sin of our age – licensing ignorance. 

Ms Braverman popped up the other day on the Today programme, just after John Major had given – despite Nick Robinson’s ill-timed interruptions – a lucid, well-argued case for a second referendum, citing among other evidence the fact that some 63% of the electorate had not voted to leave the EU. [see here]. All of which la Braverman simply dismissed as ‘typical Remainer Elite views’.

I might call this the Mandy Rice-Davies defence – ‘well, he would [say that], wouldn’t he?’ –were I not loth to bring her name into disrepute by associating it with our current crop of politicians; so let us turn instead to Marx and Engels.

In the Communist Manifesto, a host of troublesome arguments are simply swept aside by labelling them ‘bourgeois’ – saying, in effect, ‘you need not trouble yourself with even thinking about these – the very source they come from is corrupt, like water from a poisoned well’. 

Across the Atlantic, the ex-Reality TV star and serial bankrupt licenses his followers’ ignorance by offering them slogans as a substitute for thought: ‘Lock her up!’ ‘Drain the swamp!’ ‘Build the wall!’ – shouting is so much more fun than thinking, especially when you all do it together.

In the same way, Michael Gove airily tells us ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ (one can picture the plucky Govester, in need of life-saving surgery, pressing the scalpel into the hand of that old parliamentary favourite, The Man on the Clapham Omnibus, saying, ‘do me a triple bypass, mate – them fancy surgeons, what do they know?’)

Licensing ignorance is the key to unleashing the mob, as demagogues have known from time immemorial. The reason is worth examining. As a rule, in normal circumstances, people like to think themselves rational: they demand evidence, insist on being given grounds for following this or that particular course. Whether they actually are rational does not matter so much as the fact that they think themselves so, since it means they set a value on reason and argument as a basis for action.

It may be that this has as much to do with inertia as with our respect for reason: if we are comfortable where we are, if we know where we stand in the world and sense that there is order about us, then we have no inclination to move without persuasive argument.

However, if we lose that sense of security – if in our lifetime the world changes to such an extent that we feel left behind, if we feel (to quote Marx again) that  ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’ then the immediate effect is disorientation and bewilderment – ‘how did this happen?’ – which rapidly turns to fear that is expressed in anger and a desire to smash things up.

Smashing stuff up is the quickest and most direct way of demonstrating that you are here, that you do matter, that you can make an impact on the world: it is an attempt to disprove (to yourself as much as others) the impotence you feel.

In other words, the dynamic has changed – instead of arguments being required to move you from your comfortable inertia, they now hold you back from what you want to do, namely, to smash things up as an antidote to the powerlessness you feel – so to be told you need not heed them, that you can go right ahead, to be given a licence to be ignorant, is just what you want to hear.

But it is a risky thing to do. Plato equated Athenian democracy (whch, to be fair, was much more direct and parochial) with trying to control a large and dangerous animal –what pleases it you call good, what displeases it, bad. Once you tell people that they need not listen to reason, how are you to reason with them?

Aye, there’s the rub. 

You could, perhaps, call up the reservists (as our government has just done) ‘to ensure that there are effective and proportionate contingency plans in place to mitigate the potential immediate impacts leaving the EU, under a ‘No Deal’ scenario, might have on the welfare, health and security of UK citizens and economic stability of the UK.’

But it might be more prudent to disabuse the Brexit supporters of the notion that they are the majority and that what they want is what the country as a whole desires; and the only effective way to do that is through the ballot box, by a second referendum.

I fully expect that a second referendum will confirm what the first has already told us, namely that only a minority wish to leave the EU; indeed, it would not surprise me if that minority shrank considerably – but we must hope, for the sake of peace and national unity, that there is no complacency this time around, and that all those who have no desire to leave the EU take the trouble to say so. Otherwise it will be the triumph of ignorance.

A most ingenious paradox

There has been a lot of talk recently about how this is a ‘Remainer Parliament’ that is doing its best to stop Brexit by whatever means and so ‘thwart the will of the British people’.

If that were the case it would certainly be grounds for feeling aggrieved – yet another instance of the know-all liberal elite establishment thinking it knows best and ignoring what ordinary people really want*.

So why are the Brexit supporters not in the forefront of clamouring for a second referendum? That would show the liberal Remainer Elite what the country really thinks!

Or is that, perhaps, just what they are afraid of?

 

*we hear the same narrative across the Atlantic. It is worth recalling that in fact the majority of Americans did not vote for the ‘populist’ Trump. Likewise here the 2016 referendum indicates that there has only ever been a minority in favour of leaving the EU. I am confident that a second referendum would show that minority to have dwindled further while the great majority of the country – stirred from its complacency by the events of the last two and a half years and seeing now what Brexit actually means – would vote Remain. Of course, I could be wrong. But why not put it to the test?

Misread from the start

It is hard not to admire Donald Tusk and to wish that our own politicians could be as succinct, understated – and right.

Courage is certainly needed.

Let us suppose for a moment that in 2016 ‘the British People’ really had ‘voted overwhelmingly’ to leave the EU: would we have arrived at the place we are now?

Would the Prime Minister have just seen the deal she had laboured for two and a half years to put together rejected by parliament on an unprecedented scale?

Would she really have felt the need, in 2017, to call a snap election to test her authority, then lost her majority as a result, leading to the reliance on the DUP that has ultimately proved her downfall?

Would it have taken court action by a courageous private citizen – the redoubtable and admirable Gina Miller – to compel Parliament to actually exert its authority in terms of a ‘meaningful vote’ as it did last night?

Would Mrs May’s constant theme in the lead-up to the vote have been about healing division and bringing the country together at a critical time?

Above all, why would she persist in opposing a second referendum which could only (if things were as claimed) confirm the result of the first?

Surely, if the position really was as the likes of Mogg and Jenkin represented it to be (and a supine press accepted without question), then Mrs May would have been swept triumphantly on a tide of popular feeling towards a Brexit that all would embrace as the best deal for the country? There would have been no divisions in the Conservative party, no succession of cabinet resignations, no ground on which ‘project fear’ could find purchase. The British people would have stood foursquare behind the government in pursuing the course they had voted for ‘overwhelmingly’.

Last night’s vote, and the pattern of events leading up to it, make no sense at all if the ‘British People’ really did, in 2016, express overwhelming support for leaving the European Union.

On the other hand, they are entirely consistent with the view that the 2016 referendum has been misread, misinterpreted and misrepresented from the outset. What it actually showed (as I first pointed out here) is that the nation was deeply divided on the matter and that only a minority actually wished to leave the EU (as considered here).

In catholic theology, one interpretation of  ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness’ is that it is the refusal to accept the known truth. Whatever you may think of that, it has certainly proved to be a grave and damaging error for most politicians and political commentators to acquiesce in an interpretation of the 2016 referendum that is directly contrary to the truth.

The divisions that the 2016 referendum revealed certainly cannot be healed by continuing to pretend that Brexit is something that most people in Britain actually want.

What they do want is worth asking – but this time, we should pay attention to what they say.

In conclusion, it is worth reminding ourselves of how, in this country, a referendum is supposed to work – it is intended to be advisory, informative; it does not bind the government, but should enlighten it in choosing the way ahead:

‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill

Who will have the courage?

The curious monomania of Mrs May

It may be that Theresa May finds Tony Blair uniquely irritating – a position with which I can sympathise – but her condemnation of his call for a second referendum is uncharacteristically intemperate:

“For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.

She added: “We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision.

“Parliament has a democratic duty to deliver what the British people voted for.”

After all, her distinguished predecessor John Major has said much the same thing, on more than one occasion, and drawn no such opprobrium.

Let us be clear what Mrs May is calling an abdication of responsibility, an insult to the office of Prime Minister and the British people – it is that the same British people should be consulted, democratically, on the most serious issue to face this country for decades, perhaps since the War.

There is something mysterious here: why has Mrs May so determinedly set her face against the one course of action that might actually get her, and the country, out of the mess in which it finds itself, thanks to the blundering incompetence of David Cameron?

The matter becomes stranger still when you consider that her opposition to a second referendum – like that of the ERG, and Brexiters generally– is founded on the conviction that it would stop Brexit – which of course it could only do if the majority of the British people expressed the view that they did not wish to leave the EU. Brexiters bizarrely call this ‘stealing Brexit’ though how the British people (who are supposed to have voted for it in the first place) can steal from themselves they do not attempt to explain.

We need to be clear that the only justification for proceeding with Brexit is that you are confident both that it is the right course for the country and enjoys the support of the majority of the British people – yet if you genuinely have that confidence, then you must believe that a second referendum would confirm it.

The perplexing truth is that Mrs May neither believes that Brexit is the right course for the country, nor is she confident that it enjoys the support of the British people. For evidence of the first assertion, you need look no further than Mrs May herself, speaking in 2016, before the referendum:

(and note the clarity of her analysis in the clip above set against the inanity of her Prime Ministerial utterances, such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’.)

For the evidence of the second, that she can have no confidence that Brexit enjoys the support of the British people, you need look no further than the result of the first referendum*, which tells us that at the very most only 17.4 million people (out of an electorate of 46.5 million and a population of 65.5 million) have actually expressed a desire to leave the EU. In other words, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a majority of people who want Brexit.  (for a fuller treatment of this point, see The Real Enemies of the People.  and When simple arithmetic is the elephant in the room)

So how has Theresa May, a professed Remainer, perfectly capable of making an articulate case to support her view, ended up relentlessly ploughing ahead on a course that she knows to be mistaken, and setting her face against the one thing that might actually resolve the situation for the better?

I do know that she is a vicar’s daughter, so I would guess that she might have a strong sense of duty; I don’t know if she’s a fan of John Buchan, but I can’t help thinking there are parallels between this scene from Greenmantle and  her accession to the premiership:

‘How does one make a great decision? I swear that when I turned round to speak I meant to refuse. But my answer was Yes, and I had crossed the Rubicon. My voice sounded cracked and far away.

Sir Walter shook hands with me and his eyes blinked a little.

‘I may be sending you to your death, Hannay – Good God, what a damned task-mistress duty is! – If so, I shall be haunted with regrets, but you will never repent. Have no fear of that. You have chosen the roughest road, but it goes straight to the hill-tops.’

 

Hannay, it should be said, has been having a good war – he finds soldiering to his taste, likes the company of his brother officers, and is like to end up a brigadier provided he stays alive. What Sir Walter Bullivant pitches him is a mission that will take him away from all that and will very likely get him killed, but he pitches it to him in terms of his duty to his country – and Hannay accepts.

My reading is that May desperately wanted to be Prime Minister but felt that in order to do so she would have to jettison her own clearly-articulated views on Brexit  – so she recast it as a matter of Higher Duty and self-sacrifice: it was not about what she wanted, but what the country wanted – they would have their Brexit, at whatever cost, and no personal consideration of hers could come into it. Hence her dogged and illogical pursuit of a course that she knows to be wrong and against the national interest: it is a species of folie à deux between her and the Brexit voters, that noisy minority of 17.4 million people – ‘Dammit, I sacrificed my principles to give you this stupid course you voted for, so don’t think for a minute I’m going to let you change your mind!’

And if that sounds crazy, well – it is. But bear in mind that she is surrounded by people who think nothing of making a minority a majority, of saying the British people can steal from themselves, and that to give them a say on a matter of national importance is a betrayal of democracy; the lunatics, in short, have taken over the asylum.

It puts me in mind of Hamlet and the gravediggers:

HAMLET Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
First Clown: Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits
there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
HAMLET Why?
First Clown: ‘Twill not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.

*though you may also consider her latest word on the matter (17.12.18), which really is Through the Looking Glass stuff:

‘But Mrs May will tell MPs on Monday: “Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum.

“Another vote which would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver.

“Another vote which would likely leave us no further forward than the last.

“And another vote which would further divide our country at the very moment we should be working to unite it.”

(from BBC News website – my italics)

Note, first, the Freudian-slip-like ambiguity of ‘Another’ which suggests that she imputes all the faults she claims a second referendum would bring to the first referendum also. Then consider the words I have emphasised – a second referendum ‘would likely leave the country no further forward than the last‘ and ‘would further divide’ it.

In other words, she accepts that the first vote divided the country and did not take us forward, yet she is still insisting that it is her mandate to proceed with Brexit, and that  to allow another would somehow be ‘to break faith with the British people’ – what, all of them? or just the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit, many of whom would not do so again? – and ‘would say to millions… [again, how many? 17.4 or 65.5?] … that our democracy does not deliver’. How and why would giving people a say in their future do that, especially when you yourself believe them to be divided on the issue?

This is lunacy. It must stop.

Mogg Mendax

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.

Where now?

Given her past form, it is reasonable to assume that Mrs May’s assertion that she will fight the leadership contest with all she’s got is a sure sign that she’ll be resigning shortly; but however it plays out, it is difficult to see how the Tories will this time avoid the split they have postponed so often in the past in the name of party unity, or as the Tories like to call it, ‘the national interest’ and ‘the good of the country.’

But what then?

As I see it, all the likely permutations in the leadership contest point to the same end, which is that either one side or the other in the Tory party will be unable to support whoever is chosen:

  • if Mrs May wins and stays on, the Brexit faction will remain unreconciled;
  • if she loses or resigns (like Margaret Thatcher before her) because her margin of victory is too small, then no candidate that the Brexit faction chooses will be acceptable to the rest, and vice-versa.
  • In the event of May going, it is hard to see that there is any sense in running another candidate who takes up where she left off, and pursues her already discredited Brexit plan against a hard-liner, so the only realistic alternative is a People’s Vote candidate, who more or less admits the folly of all that has been done and says the only solution is to ask the people if they still want to do this; and that will be anathema to the Brexit faction.

It is very hard to see how any single candidate will unite the party as long as Brexit remains in contention, so whoever wins, the downfall of the government and a general election seems almost certain to follow.

Given that the Tories would enter such an election split along the lines described above, with a right-wing pro-Brexit faction seeking alliance from the other unsavoury elements and the centrists reaching out to the Liberals, will Labour be tempted to stick with Brexit in the hope of winning back their disgruntled traditional followers who voted for it, while taking for granted that they will have the support of most other anti-Tories? And in that eventuality, would the party remain united?

And don’t forget that Scotland is heartily sick of being patronised with sickly sentiment about ‘our precious union’, particularly given the way our clearly-stated view of Brexit has counted for nothing – as has Northern Ireland’s. The Republic can no longer be portrayed as a priest-ridden catholic theocracy, and a united Ireland might strike many in the North as preferable  to continued alliance with Brexit-obsessed England. This could be a seismic moment in the politics of these islands.

When simple arithmetic is the elephant in the room: the collective failure of press and politicians in the Brexit debacle

It should be remembered that David Cameron became Conservative leader by being more interesting than David Davies in a couple of speeches. The bar was set low at the outset and his subsequent career was consonant with that. It is likely that he will be remembered as the worst British prime minister of modern times: his brief career was marked by misjudgement and mismanagement and culminated with his running away from the woeful mess he had almost single-handedly created.

While some might suggest that Theresa May could contest Cameron’s title – if she is ever elevated to the peerage, then a chameleon weathercock would be an appropriate coat-of-arms, symbolising her complete lack of conviction and imagination – we should remember that Mrs May is only prime minister through Cameron’s ineptitude. The best that can be said of her is that she was the least unsuitable of the candidates available.

But the blame does not rest solely with the conservative government nor even with the current crop of politicians as a group, second-rate though most of them are, with a few notable exceptions calling from the margins (Kenneth Clarke, John Major, Vince Cable). The malaise that has spread from Cameron’s blundering has infected the journalists whose task it is to hold politicians to account.

When historians look back on this period, they will puzzle at the apparent inability of both politicians and journalists to perform simple subtraction:

46–17 = ?     

65–17 = ?

If you find yourself similarly challenged, the answer in the first case is 29 and in the second, 48. 

As most children of primary school age could tell you, 17 is a smaller number than 29 and 48. Since these figures, rounded down to whole millions*, represent respectively the difference between the total electorate taking part in the referendum and those expressing a desire to leave the EU and the difference between the total population – i.e. the British people as a whole – and those expressing a desire to leave the EU, it follows as an unassailable fact of arithmetic that there has only ever been a minority of the electorate, and of the British people, who expressed a desire to leave the European Union.

And yes, it really is that simple, and that is not playing with words. If you want confirmation, you need look no farther than the Brexit supporters themselves, who continually assert that ‘the majority of the British people wish to leave the EU’ yet implacably oppose the one sure way of demonstrating the truth of what they say, a second referendum. Why?

They know, in fact, that the 17.4 million figure probably flatters them, and that many voted to leave in ignorance, or out of a desire to express their general discontent, complacently assuming that a vote to remain was a foregone conclusion; unfortunately, so did around 13 million others who did not bother to vote at all. Yet the proportion that matters is what part of the electorate and the population expressed a desire to change the status quo: it is, at best, 38% of the electorate, and around 26% of the population. That is not a mandate for change by any measure, particularly one that will have such far-reaching consequences for the entire population as this. A general election can be undone after five years; leaving Europe will affect the country for at least a generation.

And that is what will mystify historians in years to come: not that the Brexit-supporting minority were desperate to make the most of a fluke result, even to the extent of asserting that it showed the opposite of what it actually does – that much is understandable, though not particularly laudable; rather it is that almost everyone in the body politic and the press acquiesced in their false narrative and gave it currency. 

Only a couple of days ago, the chancellor Phillip Hammond – a remainer himself – became the latest in a long line of politicians to assert the falsehood that ‘the majority of the British people voted to leave’ and John Humphrys, not for the first time, was numbered with the long and ignoble line of journalists who have failed to challenge the point.

This really is a Looking-glass world: having spent nearly two years negotiating to hang onto what we already have (but say we don’t want) the politicians are pressing ahead ‘in the national interest’ with a course of action that they know will make things worse and which only a minority has ever wanted; and the commentators whose job is to call them to account are letting it happen.

Our only hope is that a fortunate combination of stubbornness, opportunism and incompetence in the upcoming parliamentary vote will deliver a chance for the majority of the British people to express what they actually want. Otherwise, it is a bleak lookout for us all.

*The rounding slightly favours the Brexit cause: the actual figures are 46.5, 65.5 and 17.4

Mogg the Mendacious

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 18.21.49

a singularly dishonest man

We know Jacob Rees-Mogg to be a consummate liar – much like Mr Bernard Jenkin,  dishonesty and false representation are his stock in trade -– but in this short interview he excels himself.

In the course of a minute and a half, he makes the following six claims, all of which are demonstrably false or intentionally misleading:

1.  ‘I’m not afraid at all, it’s a singularly silly idea (on being asked if he fears a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit)

2. ‘we’ve had three votes on this’ (i.e. Leaving the EU)

3. ‘We had a vote in 2015, the General Election, as to whether or not there should be a referendum’

4. ‘We had an election in 2017 where over 80% of people voted for parties committed to leaving’ (as evidence that this could be taken as a proxy vote for Brexit)

5. ‘The General Election was voting for parties that made it clear that they meant to implement the referendum and the two parties that didn’t – the greens and the Lib-Dems – lost votes’

6. ‘It was quite clear from the General election and the election campaign that delivering on Brexit had very widespread support, as opinion polling still shows.’

Let us take in each in turn. Regarding (1) it is evident from his whole line of argument that Mogg is terrified of a second referendum, so this is simply a lie. We shall return to it later.

2. We have not had ‘three votes on this’ – there has been only one, the Referendum itself, which was bracketed by two General Elections. It is false to represent either of these as a vote on leaving the EU, for reasons we will examine in detail below.

3. We did not have a vote in 2015 as to whether or not there should be a referendum; that is simply untrue. We had a General Election, in which the Conservatives held out the promise of a referendum. Since only UKIP advocated leaving the EU, a vote for the Conservatives could not be construed as a vote to leave the EU, nor indeed could a vote for a referendum be so construed, even if that had been the single issue in the election, which it was not. Another false representation.

4. This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. In every single General election in the past 100 years the great majority of votes have been cast for either Conservative or Labour; in 1918, it was 59%, the lowest combined total; in the 21 elections since 1931 – the first year in which the combined total exceeded 80% – the total voting either Labour or Conservative has exceeded 80% on 11 occasions (on three occasions it passed 90%).

It is true that last year was the first time since 1979 that the total had exceeded 80%, owing to the emergence of the SDP/Lib Dems as a significant third force from 1983 onwards, but all the same there is nothing particularly surprising or noteworthy about the fact that the majority of voters voted the same way they have for the last hundred years; to adduce that the percentage in the 2017 vote was primarily because the two main parties said they would stand by the referendum does not stand up to scrutiny.

5. So, the general Election was not just ‘voting for parties that made clear they meant to implement the referendum’. Leaving aside the fact that both Mogg’s own party and Labour are riven from top to bottom on the issue, so that many who voted for either were certainly not pro Brexit, it is a fact that the one party that stands most clearly for Brexit – UKIP – suffered the heaviest loss in the 2017 election. The Greens might have lost 2% of their vote, but they retained their seat; the Lib Dems suffered a fractional loss – 0.5% – but actually increased their number of seats by 50%, from 8 to 12; UKIP, however, lost their sole seat and suffered a spectacular 10.8% decline in their vote, far and away the greatest loss suffered by any party (the sum total of the rest was only 4.6%). Here, too, it is evident that Mogg is trying to bamboozle and mislead: his contention that the 2017 Election can be taken as a proxy for a Brexit vote is not only absurd in itself, it is also unsupported by the very voting patterns Mogg wishes to adduce as evidence.

6. Whenever Mogg says anything is ‘quite clear’, you should doubt it at once. For the reasons given above, it is by no means clear that the 2017 election showed that delivering on Brexit had ‘very widespread support’ (and how ‘the election campaign‘ could show anything of the kind is not at all clear); but as regards the claim that ‘opinion polling still shows’ ‘very widespread support’ for Brexit, I would direct you to this page, which is literally the first I found in seeking to test the veracity of Mogg’s claim.

It gives data for four variants on the question of whether the UK should leave or remain:

in the first series of 13 polls, conducted since March 2017, only one (2 March 17) showed a majority for leave; two (May and November 17) were level; the remaining 10 were in favour of remaining, with the gap appearing to widen in 2018;

in the second series, 13 polls between January and August 18, only 2, both in March, showed a majority for leave; 2 more (27 June and 14 July), were level; the remaining 9 favoured remain, with the gap widening steadily in the most recent.

In a third poll that asked ‘In hindsight, was Britain right or wrong to vote leave?’ Every single one of 13 polls showed a majority for ‘wrong’.

In a fourth poll that asked if Britain should remain or leave, two polls were level and remaining 10 showed a majority for Remain.

(in actual fact, the figures are even more persuasive – the four groups above are based on 42, 72, 85 and 168 polls respectively: see here for details: whatukthinks.org)

So, once more, the truth of Mogg’s assertion is doubtful.

Ah yes – that first question: are you afraid of a second poll? If Mogg is not afraid, as he asserts, then why, on being asked if Britain would still vote Brexit if they went to the polls tomorrow, does he evade the question?

This is a man who has spent considerable time assembling a tissue of specious arguments to show that Britain, not once but three times over, has already voted for Brexit – yet when the question is put directly to him, he prevaricates. Why does he not just say ‘yes of course they would vote for Brexit’ ? It is, after all, what he asserts to be true – that the great majority of people want to leave the EU.

Anyone would think he did not actually believe it himself.

Another way to misrepresent the EU referendum result: the Charles Moore Defence

Charles_Moore,_former_editor_of_the_Daily_Telegraph,_at_Edmund_Burke_Philosopher,_Politician,_Prophet[photo by Policy Exchange – Flickr: Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, at Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30224977%5D

As we have seen ( in Liars in public places) the usual method of misrepresenting the 2016 referendum result, as employed by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin and Johnson, is to lie outright –  these honourable men equate those who voted to leave with ‘the British people’ whose voice, we are told, must be heeded, and whose will must not be thwarted. Yet if we look at the actual figures, this arithmetic is downright dishonest:

British People (total) = 65.5 million

British People (eligible to vote in 2016 referendum) = 46.5 million

“British People” (as defined by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin & Johnson) = 17.4 million.

(i.e. 38% of the electorate, 26.4% of the population – a large minority by any honest measure)

This morning, Mr Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, made another sort of misrepresentation to the people – he told us that the vote to leave was  ‘a massive vote – 17.4 million people, the largest number to vote for anything in our history’   (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 February)

This is a claim I have heard before, from others who, like Mr Moore, are keen to present the 2016 referendum result as something it is not. For what it’s worth, the assertion is true (though only barely so) – but to be honest, it is not worth much at all.

For a start, we must ask ourselves on how many occasions ‘in our history’ the British people have voted on a single issue such as this*.

The answer is 3.

In 2016, as we have seen, 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU;

in 2011, 13,013,123 voted to reject the alternative vote and stick with first past the post;

and in 1973 17,378,581 voted to remain in the EU

that is only 32,161 fewer (or 0.18% less) than the ‘massive’ 2016 tally – from a substantially smaller electorate (40 million against 46.5) and a slightly lower turnout (64.67% v. 72.21%) – sufficient, I would say, to render Mr Moore’s grand-sounding claim void of any worth and confirm it as a clear attempt to misrepresent the 2016 referendum result as some sort of overwhelming landslide which it would be futile to challenge, whereas it was actually very close on the day – 51.89% v 48.11% – and in percentage terms meant that only 38% of the electorate actually voted to leave as against 34.7% who wished to stay and a further 27% who did not offer an opinion.

For comparison, the 1975 result was decisive –  67% to 33%,  17.378 million v. 8.47 million, 43% of the electorate for, 21% against with 36% not offering an opinion.

I have said elsewhere that the 2016 result would be more honestly presented by saying that 62% did not vote to leave. In case I am accused of duplicity, we should consider the 1975 referendum in the same light.

Can we say that 57% ‘did not vote to stay’ ? I suppose we could; on the other hand, since the status quo then, as now, was that we were already in the EU, then voting to leave is the vote for change; so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in 1975, 79% did not wish to leave the EU, since only 21% expressed a desire to do so.

What is undeniable is that a number of public figures – many of them elected representatives – consistently misrepresent the 2016 result as so overwhelming that to challenge it would be futile and an affront to democracy. 

They do so because they fear that the result – which was actually very close and showed the country to be deeply divided on the issue – will certainly be reversed in a second referendum.

For them, that makes a second referendum something to be avoided at all costs. For us – the British people – it makes it a democratic imperative.

 

*There have been 11 referendums since 1973, but only 3 involved the whole of the UK. General elections, which involve multiple parties, constituency votes and complex manifestos, are clearly not the same as single-issue referendums in  which the overall vote is what counts. For information, since the war, the winning party has generally gained around 13 million votes, with the lowest being Tony Blair’s victory in 2005 (9.55 million votes giving a majority of 31) and the highest John Major’s 14 million in 1992, which gave him a slimmer majority of 10; while Teresa May’s total of 13.63 milion in 2017, though among the highest, left her short of an overall majority – which shows that the total popular vote is of little significance in these contests.