Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Cynical campaigns harm public trust

  • Before voting about UK's future, millions of undecided voters are looking for someone to trust (Photo: Reuters)

The idea was that a decide-it-once-and-for-all referendum on Britain’s EU membership would give us a debate worthy of Athenian democracy.

It simply hasn’t happened. Instead, both the Leave and Remain campaigns have made claims that would make the average pub bore blush.

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The Leave campaign has pasted the assertion that the UK pays £350 million (€460.2 million) per week to the EU on advertising billboards.

Last weekend (21-22 May), their posters proclaimed that Turkey would soon be joining the EU, with millions of Turks planning to relocate to Britain by 2020.

For its part, the Treasury has published reports that a Brexit would lead to a 3.6 percent drop in economic output and cost the average family £4,300 (€5,651) per year.

The £350 million per week line is a flat-out fib – completely ignoring the £4 billion (€5.2 billion) UK budget rebate and the £6 billion (€7.8 billion) in EU spending that comes back to Britain each year.

So, too, was the Turkey claim.

No serious human expects Turkey to be part of the EU for at least 20 years, amid 28 national EU vetoes, the Cyprus conflict and Ankara’s autocratic swerve.

British PM David Cameron debunked the idea with such glee he said that Turkey might join in the year 3,000.

Who to trust?

To be fair, the Treasury claim is also highly speculative. So is the idea that Britons would need visas for post-Brexit travel to the European Union.

Neither side appears to be easing up on propaganda in the final four weeks.

The Leave campaign, for instance, is planning to double-down on immigration.

That would ignore the fact that when Zac Goldsmith, a Tory candidate for London mayor, tried to smear Sadiq Khan, his Labour Party opponent, as a Muslim extremist it failed dismally.

There are dangerous side-effects when politicians play fast and loose with the truth. Voters start to think that they are all liars.

So, who to trust?

Of the campaign frontmen, the anti-EU former London mayor, Boris Johnson rated the most trustworthy in a recent poll, albeit with an unflattering 31 percent.

He led the pack despite gaffes on Hitler and on US leader Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage.

Accused of bias

The tepidly pro-EU Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was in second place on 28 percent. Nigel Farage, the anti-EU leader of the Ukip party, got 22 percent.

The British prime minister, Cameron, got 18 percent - that means just one in six people think he tells the truth on the EU.

Michael Gove, a fierce EU critic in Cameron’s Tory party, rounded out the rankings with 16 percent. 

All non-politicians are tainted by suspicion of bias.

Leave campaigners say that the BBC is pro-EU. Even Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, was accused of being a pro-EU stooge when he said that a Brexit would probably cause a recession.

Daniel Hannan, a Conservative anti-EU MEP, has described the campaign as one “in which decent people can disagree, and the tone has been civil”.

Maybe he was thinking of a different campaign.

The trust gap has prompted both sides to organise public statements by economists, historians, actors - anyone who might seem independent.

Looking for someone to trust

The BBC held its first TV debate on the EU referendum in Glasgow on Thursday (26 May). What stood out was audience frustration on the quality of the debate.

“I have no idea what to do and I blame you lot for that,” one audience speaker told the BBC panel, accusing both sides of “deflections, insults and petty name-calling”.

The final speaker from the audience said that she would like to see “statistics that are real, and that everyone can agree on”.

Some chance.

In a campaign of dishonesty and cynicism fear is likely to be the deciding factor.

Migration is still the trump card of the Leave campaign. Remain holds the best cards on the economy.

In the meantime, there are millions of undecided voters - probably between 10 and 20 percent of the UK electorate - looking for someone to trust.

That is why, despite recent surveys suggesting that Remain enjoys a comfortable lead, the 23 June poll is on a knife-edge.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer. He writes the "UK referendum briefing" column during the 23 June referendum campaign

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