Why facts did matter in the campaign – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Why facts did matter in the campaign

Knowing the outcome of the referendum, it is both tempting as well as wrong to conceive of a simple narrative of why one side won and the other lost. Moreover, given the narrowness of the result with only 1 in 10 voters tilting the balance, one can easily exaggerate the influence of any particular factor.

Nonetheless, I argue that the acceptance of what I call evidential and causal claims played a crucial role in supporting or undermining dominant narratives about the EU during the campaign and may play a key role in determining what happens next as the UK appears to enter a constitutional crisis.

The issue here is not solely about the predominant “anti-EU bias” during the campaign itself, but the effects of negative press coverage of the EU on collective beliefs over decades. While other European countries also know Euroscepticism, Britain is unique in the nature of its media coverage of European integration.

This may appear counter-intuitive as the Leave campaign won despite being faced with strong expert critiques of its claims about, for instance, the positive economic prospects of the UK outside the EU or Turkey joining in the EU soon. Leave drove around the country with a prominent claim on its bus that was manifestly false, whilst Michael Gove said “people had enough of experts”

Yet, all successful arguments, narratives and frames need to be rooted in facts held to be true and consistency of argument with fact is crucial to credibility of advocates. Evidential beliefs are directly accessible or observable information, such as the legal powers each EU institution has or UK government policy on Turkish accession to the EU. Causal beliefs relate to analytical judgements about past, present or future dynamics, for instance, claims that the EU-27 would be unwilling to give the UK access to the Single Market whilst opting out of freedom of movement.

The Leave campaigns central slogan of “taking back control” from a corrupt, failing, alien, oppressive and anti-democratic Brussels was successful with many audiences, because it was rooted in thousands of evidential and causal claims made over a long period of time about “Brussels”, especially in the written press. The issue here is not solely about the predominant “anti-EU bias” during the campaign itself, but the effects of negative press coverage of the EU on collective beliefs over decades. While other European countries also know Euroscepticism, Britain is unique in the nature of its media coverage of European integration.

The many hundreds of Euromyths about unelected bureaucrats envisaged bans on loved British foodstuffs and customs, reports about Britain being isolated as other countries gang-up on it, the lack of coverage of MEPs doing their legislative job, supported an overarching narrative of the EU being all powerful, Britain being without a say and friends, and EU institutions unaccountable. Some of these claims had a grain of truth in them, but the overwhelming majority has been at best misleading and often manifestly false. Whilst television coverage has been perceived as considerably less biased and more trusted, it was not proactive to educate citizens about the EU.

Successive governments have contributed to these beliefs by claiming any economic and political successes for themselves and blaming Brussels for uncomfortable outcomes. We know since the Leveson inquiry how successive Prime-Ministers felt severely constrained to stand-up to the power of the Eurosceptic press and their owners’ editorial agendas.

The rejection of the case made by an overwhelming majority of elite actors points partly to a source credibility issue affecting some of the leading figures, particularly Cameron, but also Corbyn. However, more importantly the Remain campaign started from a huge “deficit” in public knowledge about the nature of the EU, its powers and the UK role within it. There are natural limits to how much the Remain side could to do to overcome deeply ingrained views about the EU, but there is little evidence that they tried, and some ‘in-‘campaigners such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, endorsed the “leave” critique of the EU as undemocratic and unaccountable without specifying the reasons or being clear about the remedies.

Two lessons to draw from this: First, those who are interested in the UK forging a constructive and friendly relationship with the EU, will need to invest more in educating the public about what the EU is and how it actually works and, perhaps more importantly, do not let inaccurate reporting and the press ownership creating it go without challenge. Otherwise, persuasive positive frames and narratives about the EU will struggle to resonate.

Secondly, profound questions about the linkage between democracy, political promises and knowledge arise: does it matter on what grounds votes are cast in an advisory issue referendum as compared to general elections? Does it matter if citizens vote against their best interests as a result of accepting weak, misleading or false claims? Does it matter if promises made by the Leave campaign are withdrawn just days after the vote or evaporate when faced with economic and political reality post-Brexit?

Politics will show.