“The Leave Campaigns didn’t lie about £350 million for the NHS!” Of course they did

April 1, 2017

by Martin Odoni

The wilful naivety of some Leave supporters (‘Brexiteers’) takes some believing. The strange fixation they have on Nigel Farage – on whom most UKIP voters almost seem to have an adolescent crush – goes hand-in-hand with an unshakeable wish to think that the campaigns to withdraw Britain from the European Union must be correct. It does not matter to them that all informed indicators are to the contrary; it does not matter to them that leaving the EU is likely to harm the British economy.  It does not matter to them that it will imperil the rights of ordinary British people (including many UKIP voters themselves). It does not matter to them that ‘The Great Repeal Bill‘ will be the ultimate administrative nightmare, as treaties and trade deals established within the EU have to be renegotiated individually, and many years of EU legislation within the UK has to be cancelled off and then re-issued in a ‘British’ form. It does not even matter to them that the UK is undoubtedly bargaining from a position of weakness. There are even online polls calling for Farage to get a knighthood!

Perhaps the most damning indictment of hardcore Brexiteer stubbornness though is how the official Leave EU campaign’s dishonesty has no impact on their perceptions. Years of scaremongering about immigration led a lot of people to believe that – for better or worse – once the UK was out of the EU, immigration would go down. Once an exit vote had been secured by the 24th of June, that claim went out of the window.

And then of course, there is the notorious ‘Brexit Bus’, which carried the Vote Leave message to all corners of the country that, instead of funding the EU to the tune of £350 million per week, we should fund the National Health Service.

The Brexit Bus with its notorious call to fund the NHS, not the EU.

The Brexit Bus is a broken promise. Note the use of the word ‘instead’; that firmly indicates the money going to the EU would be redirected to the NHS.

The problem is not only that the figure is deeply misleading, as it discounts the UK rebate, which returns almost half the outlay, which in any event is not really a payment in the sense most people take it to mean.

£350 million diverted from the EU to the NHS is even more of a horlicks than you might think.

When we leave the EU, we will not get £350 million more, or even £190 million more, per week. Most of the money only reaches us because we’re in the EU in the first place.

But worse, it is almost certain that hardly any of that money, perhaps none at all, will be diverted to the NHS. Nigel Farage, not a member of the Leave campaigns, admitted that this was a dodgy promise at best. But again, he waited until the votes had been counted before making the admission. He must have had a hundred chances to debunk the notion publicly during the campaign, but instead, he went on BBC Question Time just over a fortnight earlier and pretty much endorsed the idea.

The defence the hardcore Brexiteers keep coming up with for this fraudulent ‘promise-the-moon-and-deliver-sand’ posture is that the various Leave campaigns did not lie as such. They did not promise anything, they were just stating an ‘aspiration’, therefore they did nothing wrong.

I am very tired of people coming up with these arguments when politicians say one thing and then go back on their word as soon as it gets them what they wanted. Yes technically, saying, as the writing on the Brexit Bus read, “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead,” is not a solid promise – I was well aware of that even before the referendum and frequently sneered at it – but what is important is not so much the precise wording as the intent behind it. Anyone can see that the intent behind that message is to give the idea that funding for the EU can and will be diverted to the NHS after withdrawal. That is all-too-plainly what the slogan-writers intended people to think was meant. It may not exactly be a flat-out lie in the sense of it being an explicit reversal of the plain facts, but it was still intended to make people believe something that was not real. In any way that is important therefore, it was a lie, because the intent was to deceive. Pointing out that it is not expressed as a firm policy pledge is just playing word games.

Hiding a lie within the truth like this is arguably worse than flat-out lying. It is more insidious and more calculated than the sort of crude denials-of-reality and off-the-top-of-the-head contrivances that we get from the likes of US President Donald Trump and his colleagues, which if nothing else are easily debunked.

One might argue that people were fools to believe the notion of £350 million for the NHS, given the real facts were in the public domain, and given that the Leave EU campaign was a not a Government, or even a political party, there was never any way they could deliver on such a promise. These arguments are not entirely without merit. Certainly a lot of people voted in the referendum without really knowing very much about the subject.

But these counters still miss the point. A lot of people genuinely were bound to have trouble telling the wheat from the chaff throughout a campaign of poisonous antagonism and claim-and-counter-claim. There is no doubt that both sides of the argument tried to take dishonest advantage of that confusion. Why were the Leave campaigns not more up-front about their lack of mandate for what form post-Brexit policies can take? Why did Vote Leave even mention the NHS when they knew that, as a campaign, they can and will have no say on how healthcare is funded? That was territory where they simply had no business treading. Again, it was designed to deceive. It was a lie. Just because someone is foolish to believe a lie, that does not absolve the liar.

So long as people keep defending politicians who are on ‘their side’ behaving in this way, all politicians of all shades will carry on doing it. When members of the public endorse that behaviour by helping them quibble over precise wording of a statement while ignoring its spirit, they are giving oxygen to the seedy side of politics that it has long been fashionable to bemoan. That means that we, the public, are as much to blame for that culture as the politicians themselves.

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