Both sides in the Brexit debate stand accused of engaging in their own version of “Project Fear”. It appears that any warning that there are likely to be some significant downside risks from leaving – or staying, depending on your perspective – draws the accusation of “scaremongering” from the opposing camp. On the one side, there are prognostications of economic chaos and decline if we leave the EU. On the other side, there are horror stories about the unstoppable flood of migrants – and not just migrants, serious criminals and terrorists – that are heading our way if we remain. Last week Nick Clegg offered us an alternative F project when he identified five major untruths that he argued Brexiteers are promulgating as part of their “Project Fib”.
Both sides would no doubt claim they would prefer the debate to be conducted on the basis of verifiable truths – that they, unlike the other camp, are sticking virtuously to “Project Fact”. But given the febrile atmosphere in which the debate is being conducted the temptation to depart from the virtuous road would seem to be proving too much for some. While there are some honourable attempts to inject independent and more sophisticated analysis into the discussion – see, for example, the ESRC-funded The UK in a Changing Europe – the market for such intellectual roughage is limited when there is tempting simplistic – but ultimately unhealthy – mental candy floss on offer from your friendly, neighbourhood billionaire-backed news outlet.
It could be suggested that to expect anything different is naïve. The Brexit debate was never going to be a fair fight. And it is one particularly stark example of a broader trend. Political comment and political practice is experiencing, as Cicero argued the other day, the rise of stupid politics.
The point I wanted to make here is that the debate about and between the F Projects – Fear, Fact, Fib – might be illuminated by recognising that it has embedded within it some rather different dimensions.
What do I mean by that?
Some of the debate over ‘fact’ versus ‘fib’ is wrapped up with questions upon which we can imagine empirical evidence providing at least some guidance. For example, how does the number of EU citizens living in the UK compare to the number of UK citizens living elsewhere in Europe? What percentage of UK law is actually “determined” at European level and handed down for implementation? How much does the UK contribute towards the EU each day and how much of that money gets spent on “red tape”? Of course, in each case there are questions of definition and measurement – what’s included and what’s ignored. Some of the divergence in views between the In and Out camps arises because they are using different data and different definitions, with the preferred definition, of course, being the one that helps their own case. Some of the divergence in view occurs because one side is trying to use a recognised definition of the phenomenon in question, while the other is deploying seemingly solid statistics that lack any obvious anchoring in relevant data (aka making things up). And it doesn’t matter how often that is pointed out: such spurious statistics continue to circulate.
Then there are the elements of the debate between ‘fact’ and ‘fib’ which – let’s be charitable – rest on all sorts of implicit assumptions that are not scrutinised for plausibility. For example, if the claims that staying in the EU increases our exposure to migrants and terrorists in future are not to be dismissed as an outright lie from Project Fear (and clearly many would be inclined to do so) then to be plausible they must rest on an assumption such as the UK being compelled to join the Schengen area, or a complete breakdown in UK border control. The UK has been notably “successful” in repelling refugees so far, such that it could legitimately be viewed as not doing its bit in relation to coping with the current migration crisis. Without some significant institutional change occurring it isn’t at all obvious how the UK will be more exposed to international migration/terrorism in future than it is now.
We then move into areas where there is much greater uncertainty. For example, if the UK were to leave the EU would it be able to “take control of its borders” or increase the degree of sovereignty of the UK Parliament? In part it depends on the regulations around free movement and the like that an independent UK would have to comply with in order to gain access to the EU, or which are imposed upon it as part of bilateral trade agreements with other countries. We don’t yet know the terms of such agreements. But it also depends on what you think the relationship between the UK Parliament and the EU institutions currently is. This is an area much clouded by the conflation of the EU with the ECtHR. Unless the UK is going to break a range of other international treaties leaving the EU is likely to make little difference in relation to human rights law. It is possible to take the view that the UK Parliament is currently sovereign inasmuch as membership of the EU is optional. We choose to be members on the basis of the calculus that it is more beneficial to be In than Out. So, in a technical sense, sovereignty can’t be increased by leaving. If the country doesn’t think it’s worth being a member of the club then there is nothing to stop it leaving. As we may be about to discover.
Finally, we come to questions about what happens post-referendum that can’t very meaningfully thought of in terms of ‘fact’ or ‘fib’. The futurist Wendell Bell argued that there are “no facts about the future”. We might want to treat that as a provocation rather than a statement of fact, but it is particularly pertinent in a political context because many players in the game are acting strategically. It is very much a case where stated preference prior to the vote and revealed preference after the vote may look very different.
The question of whether the UK economy would be stronger In or Out is of this type. I’m not sure there is anyone with a sensible view on the matter who doesn’t accept that a vote to leave the EU will generate considerable short term turbulence. It is bound to. The question is whether that heralds the start of the long-term weakening of the UK economy, as those who wish to remain would argue, or whether the UK economy would come through the turbulence and emerge out the other side to the sunlit uplands of economic strength as an independent nation.
The unknowns in this assessment are formidable. How easy would it be for the UK (or the rUK, if Scotland goes it alone) to negotiate a pile of new trade agreements? Would it effectively be shut out of key markets in the meantime? Will the EU impose harsh terms on the UK for access back into the single market pour encourager les autres? Will the key players in the financial services industry be happy to be located in the City of London, outside the EU, or will they over time look to move to Frankfurt? Much is made of the UK being the Xth largest economy in the world and hence able to survive – or thrive – outside the EU. But its position as Xth largest economy is not independent of its membership of the EU in the first place. A chunk of its position is attributable to being a lightly regulated, relatively lightly taxed subregion within a single market. But how big a chunk?
On the other hand, if we remain in the EU, how robust a structure is it? We can see that there are clear lines of tension already. Will they worsen into lines of fracture? It may be that we vote to remain in June only for the whole edifice to fall apart in a blizzard of recrimination a few months or years down the line.
It would be useful to do some proper futures work on this: put some scenarios out there for debate. The Government isn’t going to do it. As an interested party in the debate with an explicit policy position it couldn’t. It may be that this type of work has already been done but I’m not aware of it.
As with all such work we need to reflect on what we assume to be constant and what we assume are the key variables. We can see in retrospect that some of the arguments made in the run up to the Scottish Referendum have proved spectacularly problematic because of the implicit assumption that the price of oil wasn’t going to fall sharply.
I haven’t given it a great deal of detailed thought, but we could start to tell some simple stories about the mid-term scenarios that would follow a vote to leave the EU by taking the “ease of negotiating favourable trade agreements” and “industrial location in UK being unrelated to EU membership” as the two axes in classic 2×2 matrix.
I’m not sure those are necessarily the most useful variables for thinking about these issues. They possibly don’t generate scenarios that are sufficiently distinctive. But they are what struck me while I was having my lunch. Also, if we were doing this properly we’d have to think through the positives and negatives of each scenario. For example, if trade deals are difficult to come by and exporters are shut out of key markets then, on the upside, the economy may look to rebalance towards becoming more self-sustaining: production for local consumption. You could argue that it could provide the impetus for a fundamental reappraisal of conventional understandings of economic development, if you felt the urge. However, while that’s possible, it isn’t part of the arguments for or against Brexit at the moment, as far as I’m aware.
While this quick and dirty exercise is therefore partial and incomplete, it nonetheless indicates something about the way the stars have to align to deliver the sort of positive outcome forecast by those in favour of Leave. Both axes refer to issues that are shot through with uncertainty. And there is little that can be done to reduce that uncertainty in advance of the referendum.
Some of the claims made about ‘Project Fear’ and ‘Project Fact’ are, I think, justified. There are matters upon which an appeal to the facts is useful and illuminating. And some contributions to the debate can be shown to be erroneous, if not mendacious.
But the language of truth and untruth is not necessarily appropriate when we are talking about an unknowable future, and when the future that we will experience will itself in large part be determined by the fallout from the vote on 23rd June. A mature exploration of the issues requires more than a demand for more facts and fewer lies. Reflection on the unknowable future operates in a different register.
Image: (i) © andreusK (ii) © cartoonresource via Fotolia.com