Generally, when someone suggests that the referendum result is invalid because the Leave campaign was largely based on lies, the response is “there were lies on both sides” (or sometimes “a lot of rhetoric on both sides”, ‘rhetoric’ here being somehow a euphemism for dishonesty).
I don’t think many people would claim that the referendum campaign was a crowning moment for our democracy. It was divisive and marked by unsubstantiated claims, and promises that failed to materialise. But were there equal amounts of hot air delivered on both sides? If you can bear to revisit it, let’s break it down.
The central claim at the heart of Vote Leave’s campaign was the now-infamous ‘Let’s give the £350m a week that we send the EU to the NHS instead’. This is in fact a lie wrapped in a falsehood – we don’t pay the EU £350 million per week (recent figures are closer to £150m), and the Vote Leave protagonists knew that whatever the figure was, precious little, if any, of it would end up subsidising the health service. Nevertheless, the campaign persisted with the promise even after being warned of its inaccuracy by the UK Statistics Watchdog. Director of Vote Leave Dominic Cummings has since admitted that the promise “was clearly the most effective argument…with almost every demographic”, and that Leave would not have won without it.
Let’s compare this to the Remain campaign: at first, Cameron and co started by issuing dry warnings of the economic danger of leaving the Single Market. These gained little traction compared to Vote Leave’s big figure, so they decided to come up with a figure of their own, claiming that the average household would be £4,300 worse off per year if we left. The figure, seemingly plucked from thin air, was easy for Leave campaigners to ridicule, and of course it’s very hard to comment on its accuracy until we have actually left – but it was at least based on some solid forecasting.
Other than this, the Remain campaign largely focused on unquantified warnings of the danger of leaving the EU, although these were often exaggerated by a largely pro-Brexit media. For example, a speech emphasising the importance of the EU in maintaining peace in Europe was twisted into ‘Cameron says leaving EU will trigger World War III’, and then treated with due derision. (Nevertheless, just a few months after the result, former Conservative leader Michael Howard was suggesting that Theresa May send a taskforce to Spain in defence of Gibraltar).
One Remain prediction that we can say never came to pass was George Osborne’s threat of an immediate ‘punishment budget’ if the country voted to leave – but this was hardly central to the Remain campaign, rather the last desperate act of a politician of very limited imagination.
The list of Leave lies, on the other hand, is long and shameful. It seems that they would say and promise whatever it took to win the referendum, never mind the consequences. But their most damaging lie, in retrospect, was not the £350m, but that the EU needed us more than we needed them, and hence any deal would be simple to negotiate and beneficial to the UK. After almost two years of tortuous negotiations with the UK caving in on almost every contentious issue, we can say with certainty that this was never the case.