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Could Brexiteers Johnson, Gove, Farage be prosecuted for lies?

United Kingdom
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Anti-Brexit protest, London, July 2016. by Vanessa Baird

Vanessa Baird reports on new citizen initiatives calling for honesty in politics.

A crowd-funded campaign could see leading British political figures such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove facing legal investigation for their conduct during the EU referendum campaign.

The aim of the initiative, started by 26-year-old Norwich higher education start-up enthusiast Marcus J Ball under #Brexit Justice, is ‘to hold to account senior political leaders and teams that worked alongside them who willingly and knowingly mislead the public by publishing untruths with the intent of manipulating the EU referendum result’.

The case being built against them is on various legal grounds including ‘fraud’, 'misconduct in public office’, ‘undue influence’ and ‘incitement to racial hatred’. Penalties could include custodial sentences.

So far more than 90 per cent of the £150,000 ($196,000) needed by Friday 29 July to fund legal action has been raised.

Vanessa Baird
Vanessa Baird

This is one of several popular initiatives that are calling for truth in politics. Greenpeace, which accuses both sides of lies and exaggerations, has launched a Come Clean campaign which involved hiring the infamous Brexit bus – complete with the fictitious £350 ($458) million a week claim. It ‘rebranded’ the bus to call for Truth, decorating it with hundreds of messages from citizens for the new government.

The Brexit Justice campaign is also calling for a judicial review to look at ‘the statement of objectively untrue facts’ and the ‘lack of explanation of what Brexit would involve’. And it is echoing other calls for an Act of Parliament before Article 50 (the mechanism for divorce) can be invoked.

Apart from Johnson, Gove and Farage, Brexit Justice lists Ian Duncan Smith, Andrea Leadsom and Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings as potential targets for investigation, though it is careful to state innocence until proved guilty.

Many leave voters will see the campaign as yet another example of remainers refusing to accept the democratically expressed will of the people. Remainers, including some writing in The New European, a new ‘pop-up newspaper of the 48 per cent’, argue that it is irresponsible not to keep fighting a disastrous decision based on a pack of lies. (Anyone still in doubt about the depth and extent of falsehood should listen to Professor Michael Dougan. In the view of many remainers the referendum was illegitimate because it was procured through dishonesty.

Vanessa Baird
Mildred, 14-years-old. Vanessa Baird

It’s been a month since the vote to leave and each day brings fresh angles on its negative fall-out and how difficult and costly exit is going to be.

There has also been a flurry of research into why the people who voted ‘Leave’ did so. Much of the focus has been on those in the ex-industrial, largely Labour-supporting, heartlands of the English North and Midlands and the Welsh valleys, who ignored their party’s advice and ticked the leave box.

Interviews reveal a powerful sense of being left behind by globalization, of wanting things to be the way they were before neo-liberalism, before Thatcherism. In some places, especially in the North East and Wales (ironically, major recipients of EU funds) Leave voters claimed that things couldn’t get worse than they already were, that the bottom dropped out of their local economy decades ago. Any change was likely to be for the better, and appeals to ‘pride’ and ‘getting our country back’ hit the right note. By voting for Brexit they could also give a government that had brought them austerity and extreme inequality a good kicking.

Mark, unemployed and living in the Northern town of Middlesborough, which overwhelmingly voted to exit, told the BBC that the fact that there were was no heavy industry left and no employment prospects for his son other than joining the armed forces, left him feeling ‘inadequate’.

There has been less interest in the motives of those living in the Conservative shires who also voted to leave and against the wishes of their party. And contrary to some early generalizations, surveys have found that the way people voted related less to background and income and more to nebulous factors such as ‘attitude’ and ‘values’. BritainThinks researcher Ben Shimshon, found that Leave voters, regardless of class and wealth, were more concerned with traditional values such as ‘patriotism’, ‘order’, and ‘stability’ – including a more positive attitude towards capital punishment. Remainers, regardless of background, were more likely to care about ‘openness’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘liberal’ values.

If any good comes out of the Brexit vote it may be that the people in areas hardest hit by austerity and social and economic neglect are being listened to. Elites of all kinds – parliamentarians, media, lawyers, bankers, educators – have been given a shock. That howl of protest was loud if not clear.

But will it be acted upon and how? Brexit is not legally inevitable, the referendum is not legally binding. The legal challenges will inevitably draw out the process. If the referendum is found to be unacceptably dishonest and deeply flawed, will that make it illegitimate? Meanwhile, constitutional lawyers are still split down the middle on whether an Act of Parliament is needed to trigger Article 50 or if it can be invoked by the prime minister using royal prerogative.

Politically, Brexit looks hard to avoid, if only because voters were assured before the referendum that their decision would be acted upon. MPs are in a tight spot. If an Act of Parliament is necessary to invoke Article 50, many will face a tough choice between voting with their conscience on what they think is best for the country or reflecting the majority wish of their constituents as expressed on 23 June.

Britain’s new prime minister Theresa May has stated that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – but nobody knows what Brexit actually means in practice. It depends on what is negotiated with the EU. As the economic, social and cultural impacts of the leave vote are felt, the deal that is finally negotiated may end up looking uncannily similar to membership (or ‘Brexit-lite’) but without any say in decision making. The EU has made it clear: you can’t enjoy privileged access to the single market without freedom of movement of people – one of many misleading promises of the Leave campaign when it made ‘getting back control of our borders’ a key pledge.

It will take several years for Britain to disentangle from the EU – until 2020, at least, say legal experts, if the divorce does indeed go ahead.

Meanwhile there are a number of urgent social and economic imperatives. One, to challenge and resist the racism and xenophobia that the Brexit vote has encouraged. Two, to end austerity policies and re-invest in public services. Three, to pay attention to parts of society that have been neglected for too long. One proposal is to shift the economy towards manufacturing and make it more like Germany’s. Such a move should also involve the creation of ‘green jobs’ – one million were envisioned under the Green New Deal proposed back in 2009.

Much will depend on whether, as prime minster May suggests, politicians really are now listening to the people outside the so-called Westminster bubble. Or whether that turns out to be yet another political ‘untruth’.

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