Out on a Pack of Lies - the miss-sold referendum has to be rejected

The miss-selling of payment protection insurance, and of investments, resulted in compensation for the victims and heavy fines for the perpetrators. Miss-selling of the Leave case in the referendum resulted in

rewards for those who did it and severe penalties for the victim - Britain's key role in Europe. No continued assertion by the Prime Minister that the result was legitimate, nor statements by parliamentarians who should know better, that "the people have spoken" can hide the fact that the case for Leave was miss-sold and that as a direct consequence, and given the narrow result, enough electors focussed their votes on opposing immigration, rather than on the case for or against remaining within the EU, to invalidate the result. No-one who was involved in the later stages of the campaign, and who was on the receiving end of anti-immigrant comments from Leave voters that parroted the "76 million Turks on the doorstep" lie of the Leave campaign, can be in any doubt as to the dubious status of the eventual vote.

The cynical manipulation of the campaign was only possible because the parliamentary Act governing the conduct of the referendum was defective. Had this act adapted the provisions that apply to elections the wholesale misrepresentations would not have been possible. In particular it needed a version of the section under which a Liberal Democrat candidate at the 2010 general election successfully prosecuted his Labour opponent who was unseated and banned from public office for three years. This would certainly have inhibited the Leave campaign's lies and misrepresentations.

All this would matter less if the fact that the referendum was legally only advisory was acknowledged. The House of Commons Library's Briefing Paper 07212 published before the referendum, on 3 June, stated in paragraph 5:

[The Bill] does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the result of the referendum. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. ... The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented."

Given this authoritative briefing, known to all parties and MPs before 23 June, why is it now cast aside?

The counter accusation to those highlighting the statements of Leave, that the Remain campaign also misrepresented facts is not in the same league. Certainly, some of George Osborne's attempts to frighten voters were over the top but, unlike Leave, they contained forecasts, rather than "facts" that were rejected by independent, respected bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility.

To have a constitutional change of the magnitude of leaving the EU triggered by a simple majority of referendum voters, however small that majority, requires careful examination. Referendums often have a safeguard, such as a threshold, so that a set percentage of the whole electorate is required. This applied in 1978 in the referendum on Scottish self-government in which there was a yes vote almost identical as the referendum vote. However, it did not reach the required 40% of the electorate and was therefore void. The importance of the 23 June vote surely required a similar provision. Similarly, having included 16 and 17 year olds in the Scottish independence referendum less than two years earlier, they should clearly have been included in the EU vote. There are one million votes in each of these two years - more than the majority for Leave. David Cameron's poisoned legacy is not just the huge misjudgement of the decision to call a referendum but also the complacency with which he and his government drafted the laws governing it. Both Houses of Parliament could have amended the bill but failed to do so.

On the content of the Remain campaign generally, the over emphasis on economic arguments failed to make any significant impression on electors, particularly older voters whom the opinion polls showed to be significantly more inclined to vote for Leave than were their younger compatriots. I have never believed that older electors cannot be persuaded and in March, on the receipt of the first Remain leaflet, I pointed out that the contents were all worthy but that the hope and vision needed to make an impact were lacking. I then set out the points that I have used effectively:

  1. We have had the longest period of peace in Western Europe in human history - not least thanks to the EU and its predecessors;
  2. Do not believe war could not happen again in Europe - remember the former Yugoslavia next door when the disappearance of the federal level caused a number of the individual republics to go to war with each other;
  3. We have not had military conscription in Britain for 55 years - I do not want my grandchildren to be called up in preparation for a possible war;
  4. It is an astonishing achievement to draw together twenty-eight countries, three of which were in the Soviet Union - with missiles pointing at us; others were in the wider Soviet Bloc;
  5. The EU has been the guarantee of democracy in countries, such as Spain and Portugal, which were fascist dictatorships within living memory; and also in Greece, which was under military rule until 1976;
  6. Anyone seriously worried about sovereignty ought to argue for leaving NATO. Under its Charter we would have no alternative but to intervene in Latvia if Russia were to interfere there as it has in Ukraine. It would be the same situation if the Syrian regime were to attack Turkey. Both scenarios are far from being far fetched;
  7. Increasingly major problems, such as climate change, terrorism etc, go way beyond national boundaries. We cannot hope to solve them unless on a continental basis.

There was no reply.

Miss-selling in the financial world arose out of the failure of banks and other lenders to explain fully what PPI covered. Giving recompense to those harmed by such miss-selling was not suggesting that these individuals were fools nor that it was their own fault. It was rather the failure of those responsible for the miss-selling to explain the complex arguments. Similarly, although many Leave supporters voted thoughtfully on the issues, enough Leave voters voted as they did on the basis of the lies and misrepresentations to undermine the result. To state this is not to suggest that they were gullible but rather that the Leave campaign failed to explain complex issues accurately and truthfully. The case was blatantly miss-sold, and the consequences should be the same as in the financial sphere. To state that the electors have made their decision and that it must be respected is to fly in face of the facts, with fundamentally damaging effects on the status of the UK within the EU.

The two key statements that were at the heart of the miss-selling were, first, the lie that the UK was paying £350 million per week to the EU. This figure, shown independently to be blatantly incorrect, was seized on by the three newspapers which were entirely one-sided cheerleaders for a Leave vote, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express all of which continually repeated them. It was even suggested that this sum would be spent on the NHS if the UK left the EU. Unsurprisingly there has been no sign of this transaction since the vote, indeed, it has been directly contradicted by the government.

The second statement was even more cynical, given the widespread concern about immigration. This was that there were 76 million Turks waiting at the door to enter Britain. This too was grasped by a significant number of voters disaffected with the political process. The prospect of Turkey joining the EU is far distant, indeed, with the present Turkish President and government becoming more Islamic, plus its extreme response to the attempted coup, it is probably further away than when the process first started. In any case the entry of every proposed new country can be vetoed by the UK or any other existing EU member.

The Leave.EU campaign openly boasts of diverting the focus of the Leave appeal from the question posed in the referendum on to the issue of immigration. Arron Banks, Leave.EU's financier, stated - amongst much else of a revealing nature - in an interview in the New Statesman (14 October 2016):

We always knew the referendum would come down to two things - the economy on their side and immigration on the Out side, and that if you could keep the subject on immigration you would win."

The third blatant deceit was deliberately calculated to deceive the electors. On the eve-of-poll large numbers of voters received an individually addressed leaflet through the Royal Mail which was deliberately designed to appear to come from the Electoral Commission or from the official Returning Office. It was headed "Official information about the Referendum on 23 June 2016", with the next line reading "Referendum Communication." It proceeds to describe itself as "This document" and presented "The Facts" as if they were objective items of information, even though it led with the £350 million per week lie and followed with the queue of countries falsely to be waiting to join. Only on the last page, and in extremely small type, did it state that it was, in fact, from the Leave campaign.

From the evidence of such miss-selling of the Leave case, enough electors are likely to have voted for Leave on a false prospectus. At the very least this renders the result unsafe. The result was extremely narrow, requiring only a 2% change in the voting to reverse the result. It is worth noting that in the Daily Mirror of 16th May Nigel Farage stated that if the Remain vote won on a vote of 52 to 48 he would demand a second referendum. Petitions are not usually a significant expression of opinion but within days the remarkable total of four million voters had signed a petition asking for a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats, with their sixty year consistent advocacy of Britain to be a full partner in a united Europe, can legitimately put themselves at the head of this huge army of people who agree with the party's stance - if the party is prepared to accept the case for rejecting the referendum result as unsafe. It is an immense and unusual opportunity that the party's poll rating very much needs.

In the two day debate on the Referendum in the House of Lords on 5th and 6th July, twenty-one peers spoke in favour of rejecting the result. These included Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary. Three other senior peers, Michael Heseltine, Roy Hattersley and Dick Taverne are on record as regarding the result as illegitimate. Parliament's moral authority in rejecting the attempt to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, and in voting on the initiating of Article 50, will be greatly enhanced if the miss-spelling case is widely accepted. Equally, Tim Farron's and the Liberal Democrats' commitment to a second referendum on the outcome of the negotiations, with the option of a vote to remain, will be considerably assisted if the powerful factual case for rejecting the result of the 23 June referendum is widely promoted. Will the party yet again reject an opportunity which is both completely in tune with the party's philosophy and policy and is electorally popular?