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Post-truth, post-political, post-democracy: the tragedy of the UK’s referendum on the European Union

I used to cringe at the title of John Keane’s magisterial book The Life and Death of Democracy because of my belief in the innate flexibility and responsiveness of democratic politics – there could be no death of democracy. Now I’m not so sure. There was something about the tone and tenor, the fear and menace of the whole referendum campaign that was somehow tragic. It was a dismal debate but the central defining characteristic was its rejection of basic facts, cold analysis, objective assessments or expert projections. ‘‘People in this country have had enough of experts’’ Michael Gove, one of the leading figures in the campaign to get the UK out of the European Union, responded when asked to name one leading economist or financial institution that thought leaving the EU was a good idea for the UK. It was ‘post-truth’, ‘post-fact’, strangely almost ‘post-political’ in the sense that emotive arguments concerning ‘control’, ‘power’ and ‘sovereignty’ were blended and set against ‘the other’ in the form of ‘immigrants’, ‘foreigners’, ‘European bureaucrats’, etc. The political calculation on which the Brexit campaign was based was alarmingly simple: ‘emotive claim + identified folk devil = ‘leave success.’

But the critical issue is not so much the actual result, but the complete failure of the political system to be able to cultivate a balanced and evidence-based public debate. Democracy was deceived and the public duped because the debate simply never got beyond the level of clichéd sound bites. It created heat but not light, smoke not fire, and noise but certainly no music. This was an argument that was made in several arenas and with increasing concern as the referendum date drew closer. In its report published at the end of May 2016, the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee complained that ‘‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims.’’ It added, ‘‘Members of both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps are making such claims.’’ But the standard of public debate did not improve, and the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, felt forced to state publicly that he was ‘angry about the way the British people are being misled.’ He argued that Vote Leave were running ‘a deceitful campaign…They are feeding out to the British people a whole galaxy of inaccurate and frankly untrue information.’ Such claims resonate with a public letter signed by over 250 leading academics that suggested that the level of misinformation in the referendum campaign was so great that the democratic legitimacy of the final vote might be questioned.

The final vote has now been taken and it is being questioned exactly due to this widespread concern about the veracity of the (publicly funded) information provided to the public by both sides of the campaign.

Within hours of the referendum result being announced the blame games had begun with Nigel Farage admitting that the claim that £350 million a week could be saved by leaving the EU and invested in the National Health Service was ‘a mistake.’ The fact that 17 million members of the public had voted to leave the European Union in the wake of a campaign that had consistently featured this promise seemed almost trivial. (But possibly not to the millions of people who were at exactly the same time causing the government’s official public petitions website to crash with their demands for a second referendum.)

EU referendum CONTRAST by fernando butcher. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
EU referendum CONTRAST by fernando butcher. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

My argument is not therefore with the outcome of the referendum or how each and every person acted when they picked up the rather grubby little pencil in a generally grubby little voting booth and marked the crisp clean voting slip with a simple cross. My argument is with the architecture of politics and its inability to stop politicians spreading falsehoods and lies, its failure to enforce truthfulness.

Democratic politics tends to be slow, cumbersome, inefficient, hard to understand, and quite simply messy for the simple reason that democratic politics is an institutionalized form of conflict resolution that must somehow satisfy a vast array of competing demands. This was Bernard Crick’s simple argument in his Defence of Politics. Many of the arguments leveled at the European Union by the Brexit campaign therefore contained nuggets of truth – its institutions are inefficient, somewhat remote, and its decisions are frequently what economists would define as ‘sub-optimal’ – but nobody was ever trying to argue that the European Union was perfect, especially not the Remain camp. But the simple fact is that in the context of 28 very different member states these ‘problems’ or ‘weaknesses’ with the European Union can equally be viewed as the strength of the project in the sense that shared decision-making prevents conflict and generally directs shared resources towards shared risks. But the democratic arguments were always secondary to the economic arguments and even in this regard all that was achieved was an unedifying public spectacle in which politicians engaged in slurs and counter-slurs, claims against counter-claims, and deceit-upon-deceit. Turkey was not about to join the European Union, a European Army was not about to be unleashed, and of the £350 million that the UK pays in to the EU each week it receives well over half of this money back.

And yet playing ‘fast and lose’ with the truth can’t be placed at the door of just one person or side of the campaign. The whole campaign was, to some extent, a case study in how not to do democracy. But there is a dimension of the debate that has not yet been brought to the fore in relation to why the Remain campaign seemed so lackluster and the Brexit campaign so vigorously populist – the pressure of the status quo. The simple fact was that our membership of the European Union acted as a systemic pressure or brake on the claims that the Remain camp could make. Working relationships with European partners had to be retained. Leading figures in the Remain camp were therefore bound by the rather Procrustean realities of political life which left their concessions and pledges appearing rather limited and dry, especially when compared to the rhetoric of the Brexit leads. It was democratic politics in the sense of ‘the strong and slow boring of hard boards’ – to paraphrase Max Weber – against the populist burning of political bridges.

But the problem with populism is that it draws support on the basis that the world would be such a wonderful place if we could simply remove the cumbersome demands of democratic politics. In recent weeks just about every modern ailment has been placed at the door of either European bureaucrats or immigrants (generally both) and a simple solution offered – Brexit. In making such a political offer to the British public Messrs.’ Johnson, Gove, and Farage have raised the public’s expectations to the extent that far-reaching failure is to some extent arguably inevitable. What’s interesting from the autobiographies and memoirs of former presidents, prime ministers, and leading politicians is that electoral success rarely brings with it emotional confidence. Of course, to the outside world it is smiles and celebratory handshakes all around, but inside the dominant emotion is generally one of dread and a sense of foreboding. ‘What have I done?’ ‘How can I ever deliver what I have promised?’ are the questions that keep new leaders awake at night. In this context John Crace’s commentary on the hours after the referendum result was announced in Vote Leave’s headquarters takes on added meaning. ‘‘Boris and Gove were looking equally stunned. Neither had either expected to win or Cameron to resign, and what had started out as a bit of a game had become horribly real.’’ Crace wrote, ‘‘[Michael Gove] looked like a man who had just come down off a bad trip to find he had murdered one of his closest friends.’’

But the truth is that the biggest risk arising from the EU referendum is neither territorial nor economic, its not even demographic or legalistic — it’s the rise of a form of post-truth politics in which performance and personality matter more than the facts. For the large part the EU referendum was a truth-free zone, a post-political referendum of fairy tales, fantasy, and fig leaves. Dishonest before the truth means that democracy has been deceived, the public duped.

Featured image credit: big ben houses of parliament by Unsplash. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Anthony Dunning

    A very good analysis with which I concur entirely. The trouble is we cannot undo what’s been done. Indeed things are getting worse in this country. We now have members of the Brexit cabal, Gove and Leadsom in particular, who state the new conservative party leader should be one of theirs.

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