Optimism has been notably absent from this EU referendum campaign. Early on in the debate especially, a constant refrain of Leave's campaign was to chastise Remain for being 'Project Fear', and congratulating itself for its optimistic - but ultimately vacuous and misleading - promise to 'Take Control.' Vote Leave's mocking self-righteousness of Remain's reliance on fear implied that fear is somehow less worthy than optimism. And many are disillusioned by Remain's approach. But in a vote of this magnitude, optimism might not be enough. Fear is a totally legitimate and defensible campaigning tool, so long as the fear that is being stoked is based on robust reasoning and plausible claims. The means can justify the ends.
We heard similar mocking of Better Together in 2014, accused of being 'Project Fear' for raising concerns about an independent Scotland. But many of these concerns were justified in retrospect. Notably, revenue from oil that the SNP said would be worth so much for Scotland's economy turned out to be worth far less (following oil's global price drop), as Better Together had warned might be the case. Significantly too, raising fears about Scottish independence proved to be an important factor for why Scotland voted to remain part of The Union.
It is now a supreme irony of this current referendum that The Leave campaign has gone from smug derision about Remain's campaigning style to adopting the same approach. The temptation of using fear was too much to resist and Leave's agenda became warning about immigration and aggression against foreign nations and peoples. But unlike Remain, Leave's use of fear is essentially rank, xenophobic populism that plays to people's most base human intuitions. The fear stoked is a potent mixture that encourages fear of 'the other' twinned with a narrow-minded patriotism. On top of this is a barrage of shameless lies, most damning being the erroneous claims that we send £350 million a week to Brussels or that Turkey are on the brink of joining the EU. The Sun's endorsement editorial on their front cover was typical: claiming the same Treasury experts that predicted the drastic decline in household income post-Brexit also argued for joining the Euro, when in fact the Civil Servant Sir David Ramsden who oversaw both analyses advised the opposite with the Euro. The editorial claims that immigration depresses wages when overwhelmingly academic analysis shows that it does not
Perhaps Remain's use of facts has been dubious and exaggerated. But the persistent cry for undebatable 'facts' that has featured in this campaign, when these facts are based on contestable existing data or on future forecasts, has always been hopeful delusion. But at least Remain's facts that do cause fear and which focus on the hit to Britain's economy, public services and job numbers, emerge from a host of credible national and international bodies and institutions that independently verify one another. Compare this to Leave's Kate Hoey MP not able to name a single independent study that supports Leave's arguments. No wonder Gove reflected the wider position of Leave with the baffling assertion that people have "had enough of experts". For Gove and his colleagues fear arising from evidence, nuance and reason are inferior to fear arising from simplistic slogans and populism.
Leave's irresponsible use of fear is one reason for IPSOS Mori's survey findings which highlights the population's alarming misunderstanding about the EU's impact on Britain, such as massively over-estimating the amount of EU immigrants in the UK. It must also account for what is surely one of the major puzzles of this campaign: that in the face of all major parties, most experts and major public figures and a range and global and national institutions supporting Remain, Leave, with its motley crew of cynical opportunists, from Boris Johnson to Nigel Farage, has done so stubbornly well. This is depressing for many. But this feeling does not need to be permanent. The vote tomorrow will say to ourselves and to the wider world what kind of country we are. Are we an inclusive country of various backgrounds and outlooks? Do we want to remain a global power with the world's fifth largest economy or cut ourselves off and put our economy at risk? Are our country's decisions driven by irrational populism or informed reason?
There is a use of fear that is defensible and legitimate, driven by reason and grounded facts, and there is a use of fear that is indefensible and illegitimate, based on populism and falsehoods. The latter characterises the Leave campaign, the former the Remain campaign. So with rational fear in your belly, vote Remain tomorrow. And do not be ashamed of doing so on this basis.
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