Incompetence, lies, electoral fraud and the case for a second Brexit referendum

Incompetence, lies and electoral fraud: these are the foundations of the most important political decision in modern British history. Brexit exposes the shocking state of British democracy and a political system in crisis. The EU is not without its faults and democratic deficits—even as a Remainer I acknowledged that it would benefit from reforms—but they are minor by comparison with the problems in British politics. Unless remedial democratic action is taken quickly, then we will have bequeathed to future generations not only the disastrous economic decision of leaving the single market and customs union, but also a political system that may be irreparably damaged.

David Cameron’s gamble of staking the future of the country to resolve a narrow party issue was the first act of incompetence; the terms of the referendum (a straightforward in/out decision with little detail about what leaving the EU means) was the second; and Cameron’s misjudged negative campaign to persuade people to vote Remain was the third. Since then, incompetent leadership has characterized British politics. Is Theresa May incompetent? It is hard to say, since she was dealt an impossible hand, has fought a daily battle for survival, and may have been playing a long game as best she could—but she has certainly made some terrible decisions (triggering Article 50 without a plan, and calling an unnecessary general election being the outstanding ones). What is hard to argue with, however, is that collectively the government (the Cabinet and ministers) is the most incompetent in living memory. For two years now, Britain has had to endure a government lacking in discipline, sense and responsibility.

Such political incompetence has enabled a culture of lies, fraud and criminality. There were lies and exaggerations on both sides of the referendum debate, but outrageous mendacity especially underpinned the Leave campaign (false claims about the money that would be available to the NHS; lies about immigration); Brexiteers have subsequently run with these lies, until such point that some of them actually believe them. Brexiteers are either liars or fantasists; either way, they have systematically infected British political culture with their distortions, exaggerations and untruths in the service of their narrow (and often self-serving) ideological agenda.

Many would argue that an objective achieved through lying is not one worth achieving. Almost everyone would argue that an objective achieved through fraud and criminality is one that should be disqualified. We now know that the Leave campaign broke electoral law: it cheated, and it did so in a criminal way. In effect, the Leave campaign committed financial doping: it spent far more than it was entitled to spend (and then fraudulently tried to cover this up). Would Leave have won the referendum had they played by the rules? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the question whether Ben Johnson would have won Olympic gold in 1988 had he not been doping: we cannot be sure, but we can be sure that he gained a significant advantage over his fellow athletes. In almost every area of life (sport and employment, for example) cheating results in automatic disqualification. Yet in British politics it seems that many are asking us simply to shrug our shoulders and ignore financial doping and electoral fraud.

For unscrupulous figures such as Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, lies and cheating are merely clever tactics to get what one wants—they are acceptable means to an end. Banks, indeed, seems to revel in his use of nefarious methods (“we were just cleverer than the regulators and politicians” he has boasted in an interview in which he brazenly admits breaking spending rules and lies about the number of times he met the Russian ambassador). That so much of the media and political establishment has been willing to indulge this political culture—turning a blind eye to it; sometimes even celebrating it—indicates the sick state of British politics. When few in parliament seem to treat the matter with much urgency, and most of the media prefer indulging in virulent 1930s-style headlines (labelling opponents of Brexit as traitors and saboteurs, and demanding that they be crushed), then we have a democracy in peril.

The rational case for a second referendum is surely overwhelming. We now know far more about the illegal methods the Leave campaign used to win the referendum, and we also know far more about what Brexit might mean and the options open to the UK—a second referendum would surely involve a more informed debate than the first one did. Brexit may one day happen (I hope, of course, it does not, but politics can change); but it should certainly not proceed on its current basis. At the very least, the issue needs to be opened up to wider democratic debate, and there should be an opportunity to reconsider the issue—and one founded on principles of democratic rules, fairness and rationality, rather than on lies and fraud.

Might there be a second referendum? We currently have an appalling combination of an incompetent government, a feeble opposition, an unimpressive parliament (barring a few figures such as Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Chuka Umunna) and an unscrupulous popular media. One should not, therefore, have high hopes for a second referendum. On the other hand, there are signs that even incompetent politicians are becoming aware of the potential disaster of Brexit, and that they are fudging their way towards parking it in something like a Norway option. Perhaps they will somehow fumble their way towards the realization that, given the perils of Brexit and the fact that we are where we are due to Brexiteer lies and fraud, a second referendum is the only reasonable, fair and sensible choice. Otherwise, economically, politically and socially damaged future generations may well ask why our generation allowed incompetence, lies and criminality to determine their lives.

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