Finally, a prominent left-wing voice that accepts the result of the EU referendum and does not drip with contempt for democracy and the people’s choice to leave the EU
In his latest piece for the Independent, John Rentoul gives us that rarest of things from the political Left – a gracious and measured acceptance of Brexit.
Right off the bat, Rentoul declares:
There are two common views among people who wanted to stay in the EU that I think are mistaken. One is that David Cameron made a foolish and unforgivable mistake in promising the referendum. The other is that the result was obtained by a campaign of lies.
My contentions are that Cameron was forced to promise a referendum by the very democratic pressure that produced the vote to Leave, and that the referendum was about as fair as the rough and tumble of democracy usually is.
And Rentoul is quite right, I think, to state that with the rise of UKIP, never-ending power grabs from an increasingly tone-deaf EU and the systematic crises (euro, migration) facing the union, a referendum was ultimately coming, one way or another, regardless of whatever David Cameron did:
Cameron knew that if he didn’t promise a referendum, his party would become even harder to manage and it would lose votes to Ukip. As it turned out, he had a choice between cutting his throat and slitting his wrist: he could lose the election in 2015 and be thrown out of office or he could lose the referendum a year later and be thrown out of office. Being a politician – that is to say, human – he chose to maximise his chance of winning in 2015 and hoped that winning in 2016 would take care of itself.
Rentoul accurately notes that euroscepticism is hardly a new phenomenon in Britain. While we may not have been asked our opinion on the matter since the 1975 referendum, there has always been a significant chunk of the population opposed to our EU membership, even before mass immigration from eastern Europe or the euro crisis were factors:
It may be objected that polls did not find that the EU was a priority for voters, and that support for leaving became significant only after the 2008 banking crisis. But there has been a majority in the British public for leaving or for reducing the EU’s powers since 1996, according to the British Election Study (page 6), and immigration has been named as one of the three most important issues facing Britain since 2001, according to Ipsos MORI.
But even more encouraging (from a Brexiteer’s perspective) is Rentoul’s refusal to fall back on lazy Remainer self-delusions that the Leave campaign had a monopoly on lies and misinformation, and that it was this uniquely one-sided dishonesty which somehow tricked a gullible population and swung the referendum:
The second complaint by many Remainers is that the people voted to Leave on the basis of disinformation. There is an implication that journalists failed in their duty to fact-check the post-truth politics – a criticism that must sound familiar in America.
But I don’t think the argument holds up. One of the surprising things about the referendum was that we didn’t hear that much about Eurosceptic press barons dominating the debate. This may be because they didn’t. The media landscape in Britain has been utterly transformed by the internet – as I know well, working for the first national newspaper to go online-only.
If you look at the readership of British newspapers, print and online, not only does The Independent have more readers than The Sun – not many people know that – but the total readerships of newspapers advocating Leave and Remain were about the same (of the 13 weekday newspapers, the Mail, Telegraph, Express, Star and Sun advocated Leave, with 95m monthly readers; the Guardian, Mirror, Independent, Standard, Times, Daily Recordand Scotsman advocated Remain, with 97m monthly readers; the Metro had no position). There are other new news sources online, Buzzfeed and other rivals of The Independent that I won’t mention, but overall I think the media was fairly evenly balanced.
As Rentoul points out, the Evil Murdoch Press doesn’t have quite the vice-like grip over the minds of the British people as many a Corbynite (or even a New Labour centrist) likes to believe. People consume their news from a variety of sources, and exist in social media bubbles of all kinds – pro-EU as much as eurosceptic.
All the same, there were claims made in the campaign that were – I prefer not to call them lies – not absolutely evidence-based. The most prominent was the claim by the Leave campaign that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU. We don’t. It’s about half that. The Leave people justified it by saying it would be £350m if we didn’t have the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. Their argument is that politicians will be tempted to negotiate the rebate away in future – Tony Blair, for example, allowed it to be diluted when new countries joined the EU in 2004.
Most journalists reported that it wasn’t true. The trouble is that saying, “It’s not £350m a week it’s £180m a week,” didn’t really help the Remainers. It drove them mad because the Leavers kept on using the £350m, and the Remainers kept saying it wasn’t true, drawing attention to it, and reminding voters that we send a sum of money too big to be understood to the EU every week.
Besides, the Remain campaign was putting out leaflets claiming that for every pound we put into the EU we got £10 back. I wouldn’t describe that as absolutely evidence-based either.
Many of us – this blog included – campaigned long and hard and angrily about Vote Leave’s disingenuous “£350 million for the NHS” pledge, pointing out that it was false and that it served as a greater propaganda tool for the Remain campaign with which to attack Brexiteers than as an argument for leaving the EU. But Rentoul is quite right – the true figure of c. £180 million is just as impactful, and quantitative scaremongering claims by the Remain campaign were no less manipulative and deceitful.
This blog has been busy handing out awards for grotesque Brexit catastrophisation with some relish, so it is only fair to acknowledge times when those from the political Left exceed the low expectations which have too often been set by politicians and the media class. Rentoul’s overall assessment is quite right – the EU referendum campaign was cacophonous and messy, but it was in no way tilted in favour of the underdog, insurgent Leave campaign, and would never have succeeded if it had not ignited already-latest anti-EU feelings among entire swathes of the British people.
So credit where credit is due: John Rentoul is one of vanishingly few prominent left-wing commentators to broadly accept the result of the EU referendum with no ifs, buts or asterisks. If only other left-wing politicians and commentators found it within themselves to do the same, their political movement might not now be facing unprecedented unpopularity and rejection by the British people.
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