Notes on Brexit and Blame

ian leslie
3 min readJul 1, 2016
  • Who should we be angry at? I think anger among Remainers at the mess we’re in is understandable and justifiable, but much of it is misdirected.
  • Here’s who I am angry at: David Cameron and George Osborne, who set the rules of the game. It’s clear now that there was an absence of forethought behind their decision to hold a referendum. They didn’t think hard about its terms, or if they did, they didn’t negotiate hard to achieve them. To ask a simple Leave-Remain question without designing a mechanism to force the opposing sides to present detailed plans on which to vote, or to set the bar higher than 50% — given the radical nature of the change proposed - was criminally insouciant.
  • Cameron and Osborne were so over-confident, and so unwilling or unable to think more than one step ahead, that they gave almost zero thought to what would happen if the vote was lost. That is amazing. Everything about the mess we’re in now — and if you’re a Leaver it’s perfectly possible to agree that we are in an almighty mess — flows from this epic failure of statecraft.
  • (It’s been galling to watch Cameron in the House of Commons in recent days, apparently chipper, as if he was merely on the losing side of a weekend tennis match. His full-frontal attack on Corbyn, and his more coded references to Johnson, suggest that he blames other people.)
  • I’m slightly less angry at the Leave campaign. Well, I’m permanently angry at Nigel Farage, but let’s put him aside, because his conduct was entirely foreseeable. But in general I tend to blame systems, not agents, games and not players. People in competitive situations respond to rules and incentives in predictable ways. Given that there was no requirement for either side to lay out detailed manifestoes, and that there no way for such proposals to be interrogated, and given that — unlike in an election — there would be no immediate switchover of power once the vote was taken, then the Leave campaign was virtually invited to make specious and irresponsible claims.
  • That Gove and Johnson did so with such alacrity is not surprising, even if it is dispiriting. Having said that, did their claims make a big difference? I’m not sure, and none of us should be, without evidence. Remainers keep asserting that people voted for Leave because of the “lies”. There’s may well be some truth in this, but it’s possible people would have voted for Leave anyway, and didn’t really take the claims on immigration or Turkey or the NHS seriously except as broad signals about which side to take.
  • Much of the anger has spilt over into anger at voters. Old people have screwed over young (well, the old voted, and not evidently in their own economic self-interest) and voters in regions subsidised by the EU voted Leave (again, we normally applaud people who vote for reasons other than self-interest). The emphasis on media partiality, which did undoubtedly play a role, can slip into an implication that voters were stupid enough to be duped (compare the way that Corbynites talk about the media as if it controls everyone’s minds). The biggest media problem, to my mind, was that the BBC’s duty to impartiality forced it to give equal status to the truth-claims of both sides, in what was an inevitably asymmetrical contest, given that one side had nothing to lose from lying. Again, a function of the way the vote was designed.
  • Those who want to re-run the referendum should consider that many people will have voted Remain while wanting Leave, because they — quite rightly — took the warnings seriously. Last week’s result was a triumph of hope over fear, even if you think, as I do, that the fear was justified.

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ian leslie

Author of 'CONFLICTED: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes’ (Faber/HarperCollins) Twitter: @mrianleslie Substack: The Ruffian https://ianleslie