Here’s one of the most telling quotes from the post-referendum period: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work.’ That’s Arron Banks, who did so much to fund the Leave campaign.
And here’s another quote, from before the vote: ‘We just want the facts’. That’s one I heard, over and over, from ordinary voters interviewed on radio and television.
Hence my question: if people wanted facts, and only one side had them, why didn’t that side win?
Evidence & argument
‘Evidence’ is a more appropriate word than ‘facts’. Evidence is the very stuff of successful argument. How many Leave arguments, though, began with the words ‘I believe’? Hell, anyone can believe all sorts of bollocks, but without evidence a belief is no argument at all. This is something we fix in first-year undergraduate essays.
Of course it was worse than this. We had, as well, Michael Gove’s claim that ‘Britain has had enough of experts’. I’ve heard it said that Gove surely does believe in expert opinion himself; but that’s beside the point. What he set out to do was legitimize not merely anti-intellectualism, but a form of debate wilfully devoid of evidence. And that has troubling consequences for the nature of democracy.
A post-truth media
The media, meanwhile, were caught short by Britain’s first full-scale encounter with ‘post-truth’ politics. We know what to expect from Leave newspapers, but the BBC – upon which we rely so much – had a bad referendum. In their obsession with balance, they repeatedly allowed leavers air-time to peddle their ‘beliefs’, even as the public were crying out for ‘facts’.
One morning, the lead item on the ‘Today’ programme was Boris Johnson offering one of his more outlandish beliefs. The headline began with the phrase ‘Boris Johnson warns’. By lunchtime, the BBC’s ‘fact-checker’ made clear that this belief was wholly fictional. But the damage had been done; lies – and note that verb ‘warns’, as though this might actually be fact rather than fiction – were allowed to seep into the public consciousness.
This is to treat news by the rules of talkback radio, which operates by presenting a balance of – generally extreme and unsubstantiated – views. But might we dare to expect more of serious journalists than this? Might we expect them to inform us accurately? Who in the media told us – as legal expert Michael Dougan did – of the multi-volume UK-government-sponsored Balance of Competences Review, that found overwhelming evidence in favour of EU membership? Dougan got millions of hits on YouTube, but neither he nor those precious volumes of evidence got much attention from the mainstream media.
And it’s still happening. Last week the ‘Today’ programme had what seemed initially an eminently sensible piece on the grave threats to research funding presented by Brexit. But then, in the interest of balance, they dug out one of the few scientists in the country who believes that the situation might actually be positive. If 99% of experts – and yes, I happen to believe in experts – argue one thing, why would we give 50% of the air-time to the 1%. That’s not balance; it’s journalists abandoning their responsibility to inform the public.
Britain’s two seventeenth-century revolutions produced not only the nation’s first newspapers but some of the greatest political theory of all time. So it’s possible to do better, but we’ve got a way to catch up.
The place of passion
Here’s another BBC quote, from the day before the referendum. The vote was, the ‘World at One’ journalist said, a contest between ‘the head and the heart’.
The lesser mischief of this quote is its implication that there was no emotion to the remain side of the argument. The greater is the suggestion that, in a decision of such magnitude, the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ are somehow of equivalent value. Sorry to sound, well, emotional, but that’s bullshit. Having a warm feeling about freedom and sovereignty counts for bugger all, in my book, against the near-certainty of a shrinking economy, more austerity and a fracturing Union.
Since the referendum we’ve seen where a validation of emotion, devoid of evidence, can lead us. Brexit may have no effect on immigration whatsoever, but hasn’t it done a great job at legitimizing the fear and hatred of migrants? It wouldn’t have suited the leave campaign to have an evidence-based debate about immigration, because the weight of evidence is against them. And so now, having got by just fine without evidence, they’re unable to change their narrative in order to put a stop to the epidemic of racism they themselves have unkennelled.
Getting on with it
The post-referendum Leave line is that we all need to ‘get on with it’ – as though those of us who are deeply concerned about the risks ahead are no more than sore losers in a bloody game of Monopoly. We’re not; we’re focused intently on making the best of the present, and that’s a responsible attitude for any citizen in a democracy. Now, more than ever, we sorely require a commitment to evidence-based argument.
The initial signs are not good: while senior EU officials and hugely credible British experts have been lining up to give us very clear information, potential prime ministers have been resorting as much as ever to assertions of belief that border upon fantasy. And have a guess which story makes the front-pages? Political drama is easy news.
Meanwhile, many Leave voters would prefer simply to close the nation’s ears. One wrote to the BBC, days after the vote, urging them to be ‘more positive’. I mean, where’s Pravda when you need it?
So Remain lost the vote because evidence-based argument lost the campaign. And that happened because the media weren’t ready for post-truth politics. Looking ahead, it seems to me that finding a way to retrieve the value of evidence in national debate is maybe even more important even than finding a way back into the EU.