Laura Shields on democracy and the information that underpins our electoral decision making. Questioning politicians who felt they needed to lie to the electorate on an industrial scale.
First published in March 2018.
In response to the whistleblowing story, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson have both tweeted that Vote Leave won the EU Referendum in a ‘fair and free’ or ‘fair and square’ vote and that it is ‘ludicrous’ to suggest they cheated or overspent to win.
So, let’s examine the meaning of a ‘fair and square’ democratic victory. How should it be defined?
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on an interview with Madeleine Albright, who knows a thing or two about democracy, and what is needed to make it thrive. She argued that democracy cannot survive without accurate information getting into the hands of ordinary people.
So, I am going to look at the quality of the information that relates to the Brexit issue I know best: how the rights of British people living in the EU27 are affected and what Vote Leave said about them during the Referendum.
To be clear: this is NOT, I repeat NOT a thread about getting people to think differently about Brexit. But it IS a thread that challenges people of all political leanings to think about what is and isn’t a fair democratic vote.
The citizens’ rights story really started with this Telegraph article which was first circulated in 2015 and was widely shared on Facebook during the campaign:
One of the authors is former Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott. None of the others have ever worked as international lawyers or hold law degrees. But hey, there is a reassuring picture of a Spanish villa with a bulldozer, so they MUST have known what they were talking about.
The authors argue that the Vienna Convention offers blanket protection for ALL the ‘acquired rights’ of 1.3mn British citizens living in Europe in the event of Brexit, including free movement.
This argument was widely circulated by Vote Leave campaigners and MPs during the Referendum.
For instance, Tim Loughton MP on 9th March 2016:
Here is what Vote Leave Chair — and all-time favourite person of Professor Steve Peers (sic) — Gisela Stuart said on how the Vienna Convention would also protect the three million EU nationals in the UK:
Here is Michael Gove invoking ‘international treaties’ as protection for British citizens in Europe at the Sky debate, on 3 June 2016:
And here, the hero of the hour, Boris Johnson, (also on 3rd June 2016):
Just a thought, but — Hey, Boris Johnson — as our Foreign Secretary, shouldn’t you currently be invoking the Vienna Convention to protect the rights of British citizens in Europe? Isn’t looking after British nationals abroad meant to be your job? (Or do you just help to keep them in prison?)
The Vienna Convention argument was also used by the Leave Alliance… and Leave.EU.
Now, let’s look at how concerns that Remainers raised about Brexit and Brits in Europe were dealt with by Vote Leave.
Here is former Europe Minister and current Minister for the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, in the Daily Express (I wouldn’t usually use the Express as an information source but this is a direct quote from the horse’s mouth):
“We would be outside the treaties and subject to tariffs, and everything we take for granted about access to the single market, trade without customs checks [...] the right of British citizens to go and live in Spain or France: all those would all be up in the air.”
Now, here is the response of Vote Leave to his comments (in the same article):
Steve Baker, Vote Leave campaign committee member and now a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (a minister in the Brexit Department), responded: “the Remain camp is beginning to sound hysterical.” (NB ‘hysterical’ is the term that Dominic Cummings — former Campaign Director of Vote Leave — uses a lot when he wants to discredit someone like Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr).
And Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave CEO: “It seems that every day those peddling Project Fear sink a little lower and even further from reality. Taking back control [...] won’t risk jobs or those living abroad. To assert otherwise without evidence is just blatant scaremongering.”
‘So, what?’ you might ask. ‘Who should we believe in this case?’
The problem starts when anyone with a law degree and/or an ability to read starts looking into what the Vienna Convention does and doesn’t cover.
And guess what? That is right: it doesn’t actually cover the rights of people, because it’s a treaty between states and CANNOT confer rights on actual individuals.
Here is an analysis and conclusion from a couple of people with law degrees and an ability to read:
So, the Vienna Convention did not apply and never did.
Fast forward to the beginning of the Brexit negotiations in June 2017 and the citizens’ rights pillar of the withdrawal agreement.
No. Mention. Of. The. Vienna. Convention. Whatsoever.
‘Project Fear’ was about to become ‘Project Cold Hard Reality’ for British citizens in Europe and the EU citizens living in the UK.
I am not going to go into bargaining chips/negotiating our rights from scratch etc. all over again. You can read about that elsewhere.
You can read about the anxieties and sleepless nights of Brits and Europeans who were desperate to know what was going on and whether their rights would be ringfenced in case of a no deal result.
But I AM going to show you testimonials from worried Brits in Europe who desperately need free movement and are unlikely to get it (remember the original Vote Leave article said it was guaranteed?).
You can read all the documents our amazing British In Europe legal team has put together and that are getting more of a public airing because of supporters such as Professor Steve Peers, Catherine Bearder MEP, journalist Ian Dunt, Seb Dance MEP, etc.
The reason I am so angry is because Vote Leave aggressively and inaccurately used the Vienna Convention and ‘international law’ to suppress our legitimate concerns by labelling anyone who raised them, that it was scaremongering and ‘Project Fear’.
I can only assume that Vote Leave were so cavalier with their fact checking because they didn’t think they would win.
OR because they were trying to suppress the Remain vote by neutralising any Brit in Europe who still had the right to vote and any wavering voters who might swing to Remain out of concern for family and friends in the EU27.
Another way of putting it is that Vote Leave didn’t want to open up the human dimension and admit that it would cause pain, anxiety and inconvenience for the 4.6 million people directly affected by it.
So, they deliberately lied. And this is NOT the same as ‘Project Fear’ because the economic data the Remain campaign put out were projections — exaggerations maybe, but they were forecasts — not factual distortions that would directly mess with people’s lives.
Now, as a reminder, this is not about how people voted on 23 June 2016. It is about the legitimacy of the process that underpinned it.
I am asking people to question whether a campaign that deliberately suppresses the human consequences of an electoral outcome by injecting demonstrably false information into the debate should be the kind of people we trust to run and deliver our democracy.
I am asking people to think about whether there were other ‘arguments’ that were so aggressively defended with lies... and what that says about the motives of the kind of people who peddle them.
👉👉👉 £350mn a week or Turkey joining the EU, anyone?
I am asking people to think whether MPs who spoke for a campaign that is capable of lying on this scale to win at all costs deserve to be rewarded with prime cabinet posts.
If these questions make you think, then the only way we can preserve our democracy is for Parliament to step up and put this decision firmly back in the hands of the people.
We need an honest vote on the exit deal that deals with the good, the bad and the downright ugly consequences of Brexit.🔷