By Professor A C Grayling, Master, New College of the Humanities
It is a troubling thought that the people who run election and referendum campaigns have given up trying to spin facts, and have gone for outright untruths and distortions instead. Perhaps inadvertently, Daniel Kahneman and his like – researchers into human behaviour – have given them fresh ammunition to use in the ‘Brexit’ referendum campaign and the Trump election, by reminding them that confidently and frequently repeated untruths wrapped up in catchphrases will persuade while sober analysis and discussion will not.
What Kahneman and other researchers have empirically confirmed in their work is that the majority of people are ‘system 1’ or ‘quick’ thinkers in that they make decisions on impulse, feeling, emotion, and first impressions, rather than ‘system 2’ or ‘slow’ thinkers who seek information, analyse it, and weigh arguments in order to come to decisions. System 1 thinkers can be captured by slogans, statements dramatised to the point of falsehood, and even downright lies, because they will not check the validity of what is said, but instead will mistrust System 2 thinkers whose lengthier arguments and appeals to data are often regarded as efforts to bamboozle and mislead.
The paradox that System 1 thinkers trust sound-bites and slogans but distrust those who offer them the opposite, has turned the course of at least two major Western democracies in dangerous directions. The corrosive power of manipulation by deliberate distortion is nothing new; its cynical use in 2016 is a revival, on full throttle, of the techniques of Goebbels, Machiavelli and Nero – an ancient lineage.
A senior BBC news editor told me that there was fierce debate among his colleagues about how they were reporting the Brexit referendum campaigns. They were conscious that that the Leave campaign, in particular, was putting out highly doubtful if not downright dishonest statements either very late or very early in the day in order to have them reported in morning news programmes, knowing that fact checking and the need to modify or retract misleading statements would only come later in the day, by which time the statements would have done their work with System 1 audiences.
This is why there is now talk of the ‘post truth society’: manipulators of opinion are confident that they can get large numbers of people to accept almost anything if pitched and timed just right.
I hesitate to use the term, but ‘coup’ comes to mind in relation to what has happened with the Brexit referendum. UKIP and the minority of the Tory party in Parliament knew they would never get a Brexit by Parliamentary means or at a general election; but at long last, having made life hell for every Tory Prime Minister since Edward Heath, they succeeded in getting one of their leaders to promise a referendum. And they then went to town with those manipulating lies and distortions – such as the £350 million promise for the NHS, and massive misinformation about immigration – helped by their non-resident billionaire newspaper-owner allies. Having achieved a very small majority of votes cast on the day, actually constituting only 37% of the total electorate (26% of the British population), they have run with it as vigorously as they can, claiming it as an ‘overwhelming’ demand by ‘the people’ that both mandates and binds the Government to take the UK out of the EU. On the principle that repeating an untruth makes it a truth, they repeat and repeat their over-inflated claims about the support for Leave, trying to hustle everyone past the point of no return. The attempt by the Government to trigger Article 50 in haste without parliamentary debate is a stark indication of what coup leaders, who have been given responsibility for Brexit, are trying to do.
In effect, Farage, Gove, Johnson, Fox and Davis, with their 60 or so supporters in the Tory party, are trying to stampede the UK out of the EU on the basis not just of the falsehoods and distortions of the Leave campaign and the forty years of tabloid venom against the EU, but by continuing to lie about what the referendum really means, deliberately ignoring challenges over its advisory nature and the lack of effective mandate it offers, among other things ignoring the Remain vote entirely and the fact that nearly three-quarters of the British population did not vote to leave the EU.
One of many examples was provided by Leaver Tory MP Owen Patterson on the BBC ‘Today’ programme last weekend. Describing the Leave vote in the referendum as ‘huge’ – which is dishonest use of language by any standard – he made a veiled threat that there would be trouble on the streets if the Leavers did not get their way. This is Nigel Farage’s playbook too: and as some have pointed out it indeed has the sinister overtones of eighty years ago. Patterson put this point obliquely by saying that disgruntled Leave voters would feel ‘betrayed by the Establishment’ if Brexit does not happen – thus aligning himself with one aspect of Leave rhetoric which is as risible as it is dangerous: figures of the Establishment and the elite such as himself and his Oxford-educated leader the Prime Minister, who is married to a wealthy hedge-fund manager but who has claimed that she is championing the cause of the System 1 demographic against ‘the elite,’ aka the Establishment, of which she and Mr Patterson are shining examples.
The deliberate mess in the message here is indicative of the fact that there is a deeply troubling process afoot. Again I hesitate to use what in other circumstances would be the phraseology of the swivel-eyed, but how else can one encapsulate the issue? – namely: there is something horribly like a coup in progress – a theft of the country from the majority of its population, carried out by a zealous right-wing claque. It is a coup and a theft because it has happening on the basis of a series of falsehoods: that there is a massive majority for Leave, that the referendum is binding, that there is a national mandate for Brexit.
On the contrary, the evidence already in, and all rational calculation, shows that Brexit is a terrible mistake – a ruinous, lunatic mistake, which is not only already damaging the economy but is depriving UK citizens of highly significant rights and opportunities.
Parliament can stop Brexit; it has the right and the power to stop it, and indeed any sober reflection shows that it should be stopped as soon as possible. All it takes is MPs and Lords to act on their judgment about the best interests of the UK, and we know that the majority of them believe that continued EU membership is the right way forward, and that no ‘deal’ outside the EU will ever be near as good as remaining in the EU.
If the UK Parliament stands against the outcome of a process consisting of manipulative techniques used to inflame, capture and harness populist sentiment by deliberate dishonesty, it could set an example in a time when the institutions and practices of representative democracy – which exist precisely to protect rational governance against usurpation by just this kind of thing – are crucially needed. By stopping Brexit, Parliament will be defending not only the country and its future, but the future of democracy itself.