The private prosecution brought against Boris Johnson has got me thinking again about the 350 million figure used by Vote Leave. As Jonathan Portes points out here, it represented an unusual moment in politics. Politicians may often engage in spin, and this is surely a normal, or at least unavoidable part of politics. They may even try and promote false beliefs. But they usually do so whilst avoiding obvious, outright lies. Take Iain Duncan Smith’s claim in 2012, for example, that there were ‘more people in work than ever before’. The message, that unemployment was historically low was false, but the statement itself was strictly true. This example illustrates how a politician can promote a false belief without making a literally false statement. But it also illustrates something else: it is not clear that the distinction between a literal lie and an intentionally misleading statement is particularly useful. And with regard to the 350 million figure used by vote leave, the literal sense in which it was a lie may have not been the most significant way in which it was misleading.
Why is this? As we all know, the literal sense in which Vote Leave’s claim was a lie was that it took a gross contribution figure and claimed it could be reallocated and spent as if it were a net contribution figure, even though it they explicitly promised to match almost all EU spending in the UK to reassure direct beneficiaries. If we wanted to analyse this further, we might say that it was actually even worse than this. The 350 million was not even in a gross figure in the particularly useful sense, as it included a cash rebate, deducted before payment. But the surface level claim of a specific figure was not all that relevant anyway. Most people don’t have much of a sense of what these kind of numbers mean in the context of overall government spending. The significance of the number was that it sounded large, and could be reallocated*. But for a decision of the magnitude of Brexit, even the false figure is not actually that big. What’s more, because of almost certain declines in government revenue following Brexit, and additional spending commitments coming from replicating existing regulatory structures, any ‘savings’ from net contributions would be dwarfed by losses elsewhere.
Indeed, the substantial sense in which Vote Leave lied might very well have been achievable without resorting to strictly untrue statements. This is as the actual net contrition figure might well also have sounded arbitrarily large to many people too. The spirit of the lie, that there is a substantial cash dividend to Brexit, could have been preserved without making a strictly false statement.What, then, was the significance of the literal mistruth? As Dominic Cummings himself boasts, it may well have been a major strategic innovation. By goading remainers into disputing the 350 million figure, the discussion became about precisely what the net contribution figure was. But all of the numbers mentioned sounded large to a general audience. The spirit of the lie was therefore reinforced by the literal lie being challenged.
But I think it is significant that this strategy worked. When I first heard that Vote Leave had decided to go with this figure, I thought it would backfire. It was, as mentioned, an unusually crude and brazen lie, and what’s more, it was very easy to falsify. Indeed anybody could do so with a single google search. In a different world the very straightforwardness of the lie would have been its undoing. The story that dominated the campaign could have been Vote Leave lying, critically undermining their credibility. The fact that it did not certainly paints a depressing picture of the state of the British press and media. It is one where even the most obvious and uncontroversial falsehoods can go unchecked if they are politically favourable to the right people. And the success of Vote Leave was certainly instructive to other unscrupulous politicians. While it may be true that more subtle means of deception may have similar effects, these are at least more difficult to achieve and more situationally constrained. The success of this strategy is surely an unwelcome development.
* It is also possible that the mere fact of a large figure being ‘taken’ was a source of anger, separate from any sense that it could be better used. Given the low level of trust in politicians to actually deliver improvements, it would not surprise me if anger that money was ‘sent’ to the EU was as important as the idea that something constructive could be done if this weren’t the case.