The rise of the post-factual democracy: A look at Brexit

Jonathan Kates

Human disaster. Although the tweet was only a Photoshop edit, it is an apt description of a post-Brexit David Cameron. The morning following a lifeless “Remain” campaign that resulted in a narrow 52-48 per cent victory for the Leave campaign, Cameron resigned as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister. This instigated a tumultuous period of uncertainty, as the pound immediately fell to its lowest level since 1985, and $2 trillion worth of world finances were instantly wiped out. Throw in a “highly likely” second[1] referendum on Scottish independence from the UK and a possible Irish reunification (or a second Troubles), and suddenly the UK looks as though it may implode before it even secedes.


Countless words have been written on this subject already, with articles detailing the breakup scenarios, exit strategies, and conspiracy theories surrounding Brexit. But above all others shines a now-viral comment from the Financial Times Facebook page for its poignant description of this failed exercise in political and democratic spirit. It describes the three tragedies eventuated by a Leave win. The third – that the United Kingdom is living in a post-factual democracy – is particularly alarming.

It is not exactly a secret that politicians frequently mislead the public. This happens in democracies around the world, but rarely before have the consequences been so widely felt.[2] In this particular context, Nigel Farage, leader of the far right UK Independence Party (UKIP), promised to redirect Britain’s weekly European Union Budget contribution of £350 million to the country’s National Health Services (NHS). The morning after the vote, when asked on live television if he could guarantee that that money would be sent to the NHS, he responded “no, I can’t and I would never have made that claim.” Except his party did make this claim, on bus advertisements no less. Farage’s promise is even listed as #2 on BBC’s “Eight reasons Leave won the UK’s referendum on the EU.”

Beyond the expected dishonest claims by politicians, the real tragedy in the Brexit case is that expert advice was so viciously disregarded by the Leave campaign. In the run-up to the vote, influential and internationally respected publications like the New York Times, the Economist, and the World Economic Forum, as well as figures and organizations including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and former Bank of Canada and current Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, all warned about the disastrous social and economic consequences of a Leave win. This is all worth a pause. It is difficult to think of another singular event left up to a public voting population that received this much unified direction and expertise from such a varied group of prominent international actors.

vote leave

The Leave side played hard with emotions and light with facts on the one hand, but in the end it did not matter. They effectively argued that a) these experts were not to be trusted since their past expert advice led to the destruction of Mediterranean economies and a calculated devaluation of the Euro, and b) continued membership in the European Union threatened the safety, security, and sovereignty of the UK. By appealing on a human level with a strong narrative, the Leave side was able to find support for their disillusioned claims that immigration is ruining the UK, that the UK contributes too much money to the EU, and that the EU is a protectionist cult that is actually hurting the UK economy.

The Remain side, on the other hand, used well-researched facts to inform their position. The facts were of a speculative nature, but taken together they presented quite a clear picture of how a “Leave” vote would weaken British and global markets, and possibly damage Britain’s position in the global geopolitical arena. Normally, using evidence to inform critical information would not be worth mentioning because this is assumed to be common practice. However, Brexit is neither normal nor common. The vote’s result means Britain has entered a post-factual democracy based on fear, and its impact is already visible as hate crimes and racial abuse have increased significantly since the day of the vote.

David Cameron should have seen this all coming — for all the blame he has received, it is not enough. He was a seasoned politician but made a crucial mistake by assuming that only hard facts mattered to voters on an issue as culturally, economic, and ideologically divisive as the UK’s future in the EU. By failing to present a convincing counter-narrative based in human experience, Cameron did little to combat the vitriol perpetuated by UKIP and other far-right parties who blame Europe’s woes on multiculturalism, immigration, and economic integration. Cameron also failed to discredit his opponents’ misleading claims and obvious lies in a meaningful and resonant way. As a result, key demographic groups like rural and older residents categorically voted to leave and outnumbered the mostly urban and youth voters who wished to remain.

Ultimately, Pied Piper populism can be dangerous, but it can also be effective. If your opponent is using it to convince people to vote for what you see as catastrophic, as David Cameron surely saw Brexit, you need to use it better and whip the necessary votes. Cameron did not do this — and he paid for it with both his career and his reputation.

Although it remains to be seen exactly how and/or if Brexit will play out, other European politicians currently swatting off cries for referenda may wish to focus more on human and emotional arguments to convince citizens to stay. Hillary Clinton, too, would be wise to position her campaign on why her vision for the United States offers a better civil and social experience for Americans than her opponent Donald Trump’s vision does. If she fails, she will find herself without a job on the morning of November 9th, and once again there will be a lengthy discussion over who really is dumber: the Americans or the Brits.

[1] The first referendum on Scottish independence from the UK was held in October 2014, with “No” beating “Yes” 55.3-44.7 per cent and a turnout of 84.6 per cent. It is commonly cited in media that many of the “No” voters voted that way on the presupposition that the UK would remain in the EU. Since the Brexit vote, the ruling Scottish National Party has “been inundated with emails from previous [“No”] voters now pledging their support for independence after the conclusion of the EU referendum.”

[2] One other possibility could be George W. Bush’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the thousands of deaths and the shift in the geopolitical general equilibrium that have resulted from that decision.

Jonathan Kates is a is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon, and his areas of interests are education, social policy, cities, and government accountability. His favourite food group is pizza.


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