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As a child I remember being asked by my mother why I’d done something bad, with me replying that a bigger boy had told me to do it. The response from my mum is one I’m sure we’re all familiar with. “If he’d told you stick your head in a gas oven, would you do it?” I’d usually stare at my shoes and promise not to be so compliant in the future, before slinking up to my room to listen to John Peel and imagining what I’d do when I was a grown up and could make my own decisions.
But those bigger boys (and girls) are still with us all and still persuading us to do things we might not otherwise countenance. Many of them seem to have grown up to run both sides of the EU referendum campaign.
In the interests of full disclosure I’ll state at this point that I’m in the remain camp. I’ll also admit that I’m not 100% certain why I’m here. Maybe I’m just listening to those bigger boys again, or maybe I’m just following instinct.
The idea that human civilisation and the planet depends on co-operation and the people coming together seems like a sensible plan to me. Especially as around a third of the planet is busy trying to kill each other right now. Destabilising our economy and throwing us into the right wing wet dream of a governing triumvirate of Johnson, Gove and Duncan-Smith doesn’t sound to me like an appealing way to while away the next 10 years in the wilderness.
I’m not selling that as an informed choice and I’m not going to enter the fray of pantomime gainsaying here. There’s already enough of that elsewhere. What I will say though is that, whilst there are bent truths on both sides, the Leave campaign has a far greater responsibility in my view to be honest and open. They are the group who have pushed us to this point and they are the ones who want to upset the status quo as it stands now. They’ve led us to the brink of either an abyss or a brave new world. If we vote remain now there will always be the chance of coming out in the future, whereas if we leave it’s a one way ticket.
My concern is that the we’re being asked to make a choice about something that is frankly above most of our pay grades – certainly mine. The referendum campaign has descended to the level of every other political campaign with both sides making ever more outrageous claims into order to get that cross in what they regard as the right box.
The difference is that if we tick the wrong box in an election, we get the chance to come back and correct that mistake a few years later. Each stroke of the stubby pencil in this vote will impact our lives and probably those of several generations to come. We can’t afford to be doing that simply on instinct or on the basis of dog-whistle political button pushing.
Arguments on both sides are now so clouded with spin and rhetoric that any definitive statement is almost immediately challenged by an equally unqualified barrage of contradictory statistics or references. Few people bother to fact check them before passing them on via social media. For those who have already made their minds up that’s fine, but for the undecided this fog of war is potentially toxic.
Both sides are guilty of gross speculation and shock language, but the Brexit camp seems to be more tenacious in pushing whatever mistruth they think might gain them an edge.
Of course this is their finest hour. The fight they’ve been itching to get into for years, perhaps decades. So what’s a few low punches and head-butts if it gets them the knockout they dream of?
And the principle is essentially the same on both sides, throw out a dodgy statistic or half-truth and then rely on continual repetition to insinuate it into the realms of veracity.
It’s particularly ironic that this rationale should be applied by those more jingoistic flag-wavers on the Brexit side, who constantly refer to our place in the world as a reflection of our part in two world wars, because it’s a propaganda technique largely pioneered by the Josef Goebbels.
Before you start rolling your eyes, I’m not drawing any other comparisons here. It just happened to be that the Nazis honed the art, and it’s one that we were just as guilty of back then. Goebbels commented on Churchill’s reliance on the practice, dubbing it ‘The Big Lie’, explaining “[t]he essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous”.
And it appears we’re still falling for it.
The most notorious of these big lies has been emblazoned on the Brexit battle bus since the start of their campaign. Perhaps fittingly, considering the bus is also German made.
The figure of £350m a week being paid to the EU had been comprehensively discredited even before the vehicle made it out of the sign writer’s workshop. But there it remains, a stubborn reminder of just how little the Leave campaign cares about properly informing the electorate as long as it gets its way.
And it’s a big juicy lie they just won’t let go of. Johnson himself was filmed re-affirming it in an interview on that very bus, repeating over and over “yes it is, yes it is” to his interviewer, like a petulant, scruffy-headed schoolboy. He did everything but stick his fingers in his ears and shout “liar, liar pants on fire”, a phrase he’s used in previous interviews, just to prove what a great advert for dignified and respected British statesmanship he isn’t.
Then they compounded the lie even further by nailing the NHS logo to this fallacious figure, claiming that we would instead spend all this dosh on sorting out all the funding shortfalls the government had imposed on the health service, rather than forking it over to Johnny foreigner. Neatly sidestepping the fact that many of the leading lights in the Leave campaign, not least Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith have been instrumental in undermining the NHS for years.
That was a lie too far for former Leave supporter and Tory MP doctor Sarah Wollaston. Directly citing this disingenuous usage of the NHS as a gaming chip in the Brexit gamble, she switched sides and now supports the Remain campaign.
There’s now even the possibility that the Department of Health will take legal action against Leave for what it has said is a misleading use of NHS branding. Although of course by the time it gets to court it’ll all be over, bar the shouting.
It’s not the first time right wing politicians have used this argument. UKIP famously criticised the UK’s foreign aid budget in similar populist style, roasting the old ‘charity begins at home’ chestnut. In common with the Brexiteers this ignores the benefits we receive from these payments and the miniscule portion of our national wealth they represent.
As the Leavers never tire of reminding us, we’re the 5th largest economy in the world, so surely we can afford to fund our health service AND belong to the largest trading bloc in the world, especially given the huge advantages that gives us.
If we’re going to withhold any external payments, let’s start with the £6bn our government gave to the private fossil fuel industry in the last year, or maybe we should consider not selling off the NHS bit by bit to private healthcare firms, most of them foreign companies anyway.
Moreover maybe we should start worrying about who’s going to keep the NHS running when we start restricting the number of EU migrants, many of whom come here as fully qualified medical and support staff.
Like many people I am now heartily sick of this referendum campaign, and like Sarah Wollaston I resent those who’d seek to dismantle our health service using it as a justification for a clumsy argument that bears very little close scrutiny.
We will all be faced with a very important decision on June 23rd. One that will have far reaching implications. We’ve been given a pitiful amount of time to discuss, debate and inform ourselves on a mass of complicated issues that will affect all of us, our children and generations to come.
I supported the referendum but assumed we’d have at least a year of campaigning during which we could sort the truth from the twaddle, the bottom line from the bollocks. Something that would also have given the EU pause for thought – time to reflect more productively on the kinds of reforms many of us would like to see.
Given this compressed timescale, we need more than propaganda and truth-twisting to inform the decision to leave. We need honest arguments, not hidden agendas. Proper debate, not yah-boo chants across a football field. We can’t afford to gamble all our futures on more big lies from the bigger boys.