Hold the Brexit Con Artists to Account
London's High Court has thrown out a complaint charging that leaders of the UK's Leave campaign ahead of the UK's 2016 referendum lied. That is regrettable, because a hearing would have highlighted the danger that such lies can pose to a democracy.
PARIS – In late May, the Westminster Magistrates’ Court decided to hear a complaint brought by activist Marcus Ball, who had accused Boris Johnson, the former UK foreign secretary who is now leading the field to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, of lying during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. London’s High Court, however, reversed that decision and quashed the summons that would have compelled Johnson to testify about the Brexit campaign in open court.
The High Court’s decision is regrettable. A public hearing would have been highly welcome for two reasons. It would have exposed the lies of the Brexiteers – which have always seemed to me to be the best argument of those who want to stop Brexit. And, more generally, a hearing would have highlighted the danger that such lies can pose to a democracy.
Of course, the United Kingdom should be free to choose to become Little England again. After all, populations have as much right to commit suicide as individuals do. But this is on one condition: that the choice is informed, deliberate, and freely made. No one should be pushed into it by harassment or incitement – an offense which, in the case of actual suicide, is subject to severe punishment.
Yet something akin to that happened during the campaign leading up to the Brexit vote. The British people, far from acting in full awareness of the issues, were misled. The examples of misinformation and barely disguised lies that clouded voters’ judgment are too numerous to count.
Allowing Ball’s complaint to proceed would have shown this. A court hearing would have demonstrated that the debate prior to the referendum was not honest. It would have established that the vote in favor of Brexit and the popular acceptance of its consequences were not matters of informed consent.
And that would have provided the best possible argument that UK citizens should have the opportunity to reconsider their decision. In addition, the court proceedings would have had the further, even more essential, virtue of underlining how the toleration of lies can gravely harm a democracy.
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Johnson’s supporters argued that it would not have been right to permit a single judge to decide a debate of Brexit’s magnitude, and that the courts are not appellate chambers for the settlement of democratic disputes. Fair enough – but then there are different types of dispute.
For example, it is one thing to bet that England, set free from Old Europe, would return to the high seas and prosper. But it is quite another to promote that bet by deploying flagrant untruths – for example, that Europe was costing the UK £350 million ($444 million) per week – which, once the bettors had wagered their life savings, were sneeringly acknowledged to have been untrue.
In a similar vein, it is one thing to believe, as US neoconservatives did, that democracy could be implemented in Iraq at the barrel of a gun, and to argue in good faith on the basis of that belief. But it is quite another to try to settle the issue at the United Nations by displaying bogus vials of powder that supposedly established the presence of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Both the Iraq War and Brexit illustrate a simple but essential distinction for any democracy. On the one hand, there is a fair fight between opposing points of view conducted in an arena governed by clear rules, which is what the public space should be. On the other hand, there is a struggle to the death in which no holds are barred and no punch can land too low, including the punch that is like no other: the lie.
Lying is different because it erodes our faith in public discourse. It poisons the climate in which political speech is conceived, mines the fields on which opposing views must contend, and removes even the possibility of the fair reckonings that are the hallmark of democracy.
The contrast is between Nietzsche’s “perspectivism,” in which competing “evaluations” joust endlessly with one another, and the “lie” of Machiavelli, which allows the deceptive prince to have the last word when closing a debate.
Or, more precisely, the contrast pits Machiavelli against himself. In The Prince, Machiavelli does not so much legitimize the right to lie as alert people to the way in which the tyrant, by bestowing this right upon himself, renders further debate impossible. But in the Discourses, Machiavelli defends the right to deploy all means – except the right to lie – to ensure that one’s passion and point of view prevail.
We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies.
Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them. And that is what any trial of the Brexiteer charlatans would demonstrate.