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Are Brexit ‘Lies’, Lies?

Are Brexit ‘Lies’, Lies?

Deception carries a huge premium in political campaigns. The stakes are very high and afterwards, it is often too late to do anything. This is nothing new. The Art of Political Lying (1712) describes uncovering political deception as being like, “a physician who has found out an infallible medicine after the patient is dead”.

The referendum multiplied the premium for deception, as the Express shouted, it was a “ONCE in a LIFETIME” event. It is perhaps unsurprising there was so much deception surrounding Brexit, but when Leave or Remain supporters specifically call something a ‘lie’ are they just signalling disagreement? Does ‘lie’ even work in post-truth politics?

Conventionally (in philosophy and social psychology), a lie must satisfy four conditions.

It needs to be a:

i) knowingly
ii) false
iii) statement
iv) intended to deceive

One problem classifying Brexit ‘lies’ relates to (i): it is hard establishing intent. Someone could make a false statement but believe it was true. Complex, moving topics give more scope because liars can more plausibly claim to have been mistaken.

On condition (ii) many Brexit ‘lies’ are not ‘false’. Some are ‘truth-apt’ - potentially true or false at a later date. An example is David Davis’ claim shortly after the referendum, “within two years... we can negotiate a free trade area
massively larger than the EU”. The Treasury’s figure of British households each being £4,300 worse off was truth-apt but projected forward 15 years, so far removed from present reality as to be dubious.

Also on (ii) many Brexit ‘lies’ are not ‘false’ because they include terms that are vague or have no meaning or can mean different things. We do not have agreed definitions of ‘control’, ‘sovereignty’ or ‘reformed EU’ for instance.

Statements with these terms are not meaningless exactly, but they are also not truth-apt. Rather like the centre of a word cloud they refer loosely to a bundle of related ideas. Some of these ideas themselves are incoherent so we may first need to unpack them and pin them down: an example is the claim we can take back control soon when doing so means having to copy existing agreements (so we do not have control). Brexit ‘lies’ are often not attributable (iii) statements.

Leave and Remain were cross-party movements combining elected representatives and less accountable figures (in ‘business’ or ‘personalities’). Both camps could promise things without committing themselves in the way a manifesto would. Finally, condition (iv) - lies require a liar and someone lied to. People do not like to admit to having been deceived. It is hard to pin down Brexit ‘lies’ but this approach also suggests six ways to sharpen the label.

Connect People and Statements

Campaign statements rarely have one author. This means people can associate themselves with a false claim at the same time as distance themselves from it. They can say, essentially, “those were not my words”.

Anchor Statements to the Present

However unlikely a statement about the future seems, it is not ‘false’. If we are in search of ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ we need to secure claims to the present.

Update Past Claims

A statement made in the past can be disproved but it need not be a lie, providing the person believed what they said at the time. Politicians often acknowledge they would say things differently “knowing what I know now”. Asking people to update their claims is useful because it closes down the gap between past and present.

Attribute Competence

Ridiculing someone as incompetent makes it harder to use the label ‘lie’. It could be more helpful to attribute competence to someone and then be able to claim they made a ‘knowingly’ false statement.

Pursue True Statements

Interviewers enjoy trying to catch politicians out but if we are interested in true statements there is no need to keep questions secret. Why not announce questions in advance, explain why they are answerable and identify what kinds of responses could reasonably be taken as deceptive?

Praise the Deceived

It takes courage and integrity to admit to having been deceived. The more people who admit they feel lied to, the better picture we have of liars.

Author: Professor Kevin Morrell, Professor of Strategy

Article first published in IMPACT Magazine in January 2018.

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