There was a chilling inevitability about the findings of the Chilcot report.
I was at a political crossroads in 2003. Today, I rewatched Charles Kennedy’s speech which was seminal in my decision to actively support the Liberal Democrats. It beggared my belief that a British Prime Minister would commit our Armed Forces to the invasion of a country which plainly posed no threat to us, and had not invaded another country, and without a UN mandate.
We still live with the repercussions of the fateful decision. As Charles predicted, we are now less safe, not more. At the time, Charles was vilified by many but proven right.
Last night, I had the privilege of meeting some of our newest members. Just like me, they saw that our leader Tim Farron was standing up for what is right in the face of constant criticism. It cannot be right to destroy our economy, and the life chances of future generations when the case for Brexit was so blantantly flawed. It is up to people like us to speak up before it is too late.
Of course, I expect to receive sackfuls of comments accusing me of being ‘undemocratic.’ But bear with me. The referendum (which by the way is advisory, not binding) was deeply flawed.
52% of those who voted, voted ‘Leave.’ This is at any rate hardly a ringing endorsement. Several prominent leave campaigners had already indicate that a narrow remain victory would lead them to fight on. The referendum never specified a threshold for leaving the EU either in terms of the turnout or the percentage. However, if you were a trade union you would not have been able to strike, based on these figures. Something as far reaching and irreversible as brexit should surely need a clear threshold?
Secondly, neither the wording of the referendum nor the official leave campaign articulated what kind of ‘leave’ we were being offered. It is appalling to discover that HM Government didn’t have any plans at all. Cameron’s response? Resign and let someone else deal with it. Leaving the EU throws up vital questions about what sort of relationship we would seek to have with the EU instead. A Swiss or Norwegian model would protect our business interests, but would come at the prices of continuing freedom of movement. A total withdrawel will compound and deepen the damage that has already been done to our economy. When this question has been decided, a democratic mandate would still be needed to implement it.
Thirdly, we were lied to. The official leave campaign continued to repeat as fact, claims that had been debunked time and time again. The most vexatious being the £350 million pounds a week which was emblazoned on leave literature and even Boris Johnson’s battle bus. Not only was it demonstrably not £350 per week, but it was strongly implied that this could be diverted to the NHS.
The remain campaign weren’t blameless, of course. Whilst it was clear enough to anyone who understood the basics of the economics that brexit was ‘a very bad idea,’ the presentation of estimates and projections as if they were hard facts is regrettable. It led the public to wonder who was telling the truth and who they could trust.
Michael Gove famously said people had ‘had enough of experts.’ This was one of the most ludicrous statements I have ever heard. This statement alone should warn us that he is not fit to be allowed near the levers of power. No leader, or politician of any kind, can be an expert on everything. What a sensible leader does is consult experts before making major decisions. And the experts all agreed that brexit would cause major damage to the economy of the UK. Very major damage. The pound is heavily down against every major currency. Not just a bit down, it went down like it had been shot by a sniper. This is going to feed through into price increases very soon, especially fuel and tech products. But it will be followed by food prices rises (which are highly sensitive to fuel prices). Of course, the experts predicted this. We are all going to be worse off, and it is entirely self-inflicted.
The campaign has exposed very serious flaws in balanced journalism. I’m not talking about the press here, the Mail, Express and Sun published such hateful material, but nobody was surprised. But the television and radio news is meant to be balanced. The BBC and other TV coverage failed us spectacularly. Their interpretation of ‘balanced’ was to give equal airtime to leave and remain. Even before the referendum had taken place, journalists were becoming uneasy with this approach. They felt they were being forced to regurgitate statements which they knew were untrue or misleading. It was difficult for listeners and viewers to differentiate when a journalist was ‘stating a fact’ or ‘repeating a lie in the interests of balance.’ I have already mentioned the £350 million pounds a week. This was comprehensively debunked by both the BBC and Channel 4, but you only knew that if you dug around their websites. Another example was the claim that Turkey was on the verge of accession. Every journalist who uttered those words knew it was a ludicrous claim, but he was forced to repeat it ‘in the interests of balance.’ If we really want a balanced picture from our news outlets, we need to give them the freedom to clearly state when a claim is false or misleading.
In the mean time, we have exposed very real divisions in our society. We are right to campaign for a rethink, we won’t get another chance. But I believe we have to move away from the divisive and start to focus more on a positive, inclusive and fact based case if we are to take public opinion with us.