This isn’t even topical, but now the egregious Farage has curried enough favour with the Orange Demagogue to be suggested as the UK’s ambassador to the US, it’s something that people are still going on about, so I can’t remain silent about it.
My thesis is stark and simple: Every person who says ‘Nigel Farage lied about NHS funding’ is showing themselves too feeble in their understanding of the world even to deserve to have a vote, leave alone voting for or against remaining in the EU.
In case you have been in a boredom-induced coma from the day that Cameron announced his absurd referendum, or were kidnapped by aliens and have only just oozed out of a wormhole to find yourself back here, this is the story. During the referendum, both sides said things about the consequences and wisdom of leaving the EU which were not verifiable fact. They said things that were irrelevant, tangential and misleading, and many things were said that might turn out to be true, but then again, might not. The prognosis of an economic shock, for example, if we voted to leave, was a guess about something which could happen or which could not happen, or could happen to a greater or lesser extent than proposed. Since the vote, many people who believed in the economic shock when it was warned about, have pointed to certain changes as evidence that the shock is coming true, and that the prophets should have been listened to. The rising of inflation, for example, from 0.8% to 1%, was heralded by these Jeremiahs as the sound of the last trump (If only there hadn’t been a subsequent Trump….) but it was remarkable how silent they were when other statistics suggested a rosier outlook.
Now, my coma-wakers, and alien-escapers, Mr Farage was associated with the Leave campaign, and in their wisdom they decided to put a notice on their bus which said:
There are many things one could object to about this. The vulgarity of it, for a start. London has a great tradition in big red buses, but not ugly vermilion charabancs like this. Then there’s the fact that it should be two sentences instead of one – or at the very least there should be a semicolon after ‘week’. But one thing that should be very clear is that it is not a promise. Promises say things like ‘I will tidy my room if you make my tea for me’ or ‘I’ll buy you a new piano if you practise every day for a year’. That’s right, things that are best kept between parents and children. Oh yes, promises are important between grown-ups too, but then they tend to be called contracts. Any lawyer or law student will tell you that this lacks sufficient certainty (R v Storer, R v Gibson, they will dutifully add) to be a contract, even a unilateral one (Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company – ok, I’ll stop now), and that there is no consideration anyway. So which bit is the lie?
There are, as I pointed out, two bits here, which should really be two sentences, or arguably one with a semicolon. The first bit is a statement of purported fact. The fact may or may not be true. You can take a look here, but it seems as if it is true if you are allowed to vary the last figure down to about £161m instead of £350m, and false if you aren’t. Why should you be allowed to? Well, the point surely is ‘a large amount of money’, and if there is a point being made, it isn’t that the figure is precisely £350m, and isn’t invalidated if it is a different amount of the same order of magnitude. It certainly isn’t what people object to if they say that ‘Farage lied about NHS funding’. So, on that basis, let’s say that the first bit is true.
What does the second bit say? ‘Let’s fund the NHS instead.’ Now, there are problems with this for all sorts of reasons, but the biggest one, and the real clincher for not finding it a ‘promise’ is this: it wasn’t made by anyone who could carry it out as a promise. ‘Vote Leave’ is a pressure group formed for the referendum, and that is the limit of its legal powers. Sure, it contained members who are currently in the government, but there was no way that Boris Johnson, David Davis or (mercifully still not a government servant of any sort, whatever Trump’s wishes) Nigel Farage could in any way bind a future government to behave as they had advertised on their big vulgar red bus.
Now, famously, the day after the ‘Brexit result’ or, as I would prefer to put it, a tiny majority of the British public gave it as their opinion that the country would be better off outside the EU, Farage and others are recorded by the popular media as having ‘backtracked on their pledge’. Well, it’s true that if you weren’t concentrating hard enough, you could have misinterpreted the bus slogan as a promise. You could have thought ‘If I vote Leave, they’ll give all that saved money to the NHS, and my aunt needs a hip operation’. But you could also believe that Persil washes whiter, and you’d struggle to get your money back if it doesn’t wash whiter than your old powder. Political spin has long surpassed adspeak in its sophistry, and the presumption is that the populace is clever enough to cope. Caveat emptor. Perhaps this presumption is out of date?
The difficult aspect of this is that possibly a large part of the electorate saw the ‘bus promise’ and voted Leave in the interests of the NHS. Maybe that’s true. What the slogan can’t mean, and couldn’t have represented, is a guarantee that that money would actually be paid to the NHS. Yet people drew that conclusion and by claiming that a promise has been broken they are really cursing themselves for not thinking clearly enough, and exposing themselves as the flaw in the whole assumption that the populace in general can concentrate carefully enough to make decisions as important as Britain’s membership of the EU. This is the whole reason why we have a parliamentary democracy, and not an absolute one.
In any case there are other things wrong with the slogan. ‘Let’s fund the NHS’ is an exhortation to one’s fellows, which might incline us to believe that Vote Leave wants to add the £350m to the NHS’s existing funding, but it doesn’t actually say that. We already fund the NHS. What does it mean to say ‘Let’s fund the NHS instead? The ‘instead’ could actually mean that NHS funding could be substituted with the money saved from leaving the EU – take away the existing funding and replace it with £350m per week. It currently gets about £2 billion per week from central funds, so that would have been a promise (if such it could be held) to cut NHS funding by over three quarters.
I wouldn’t want anyone to think that Nigel Farage doesn’t have substantial drawbacks as a politician and a person, and it remains quite possible that people were misled into voting Leave because they thought it would lead to more money for the NHS, but it is similarly possible that people were misled into voting Remain because they were frightened of the prospect of economic shock. It is also possible that the people who demanded the return of sovereignty to UK Parliament are among those who deplore the Article 50 ruling.
Now that ‘post-fact’ is in the dictionary, we can give up on the whole prospect of rational argument and basis in fact, and play the Trump game of bare-faced lies and unsubstantiated assertion to win popular consent, or the alt-right tactic of using shock speech and outrageous opinion to win attention, but we all know that neither of those is going to end anywhere good, don’t we? So can we please stop saying that people promised things they couldn’t promise, and that they lied when they didn’t even actually say anything.