Brexit rhetoric: fairness, fallacies and false analogies

by Peter Millican | 08.04.2019

Peter Millican is Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

For professional philosophers like me, the Brexit debate offers a great illustration of the value of what we teach. Rarely has there been an issue of such national significance, whose outcome depends so strongly on rhetorical (rather than economic or military) force. Some of this rhetoric has been well directed, some downright dishonest, but much – I suspect – has been unintentionally flawed through lack of awareness of logical pitfalls. Recognising this could help hugely in our current political crisis.

“You would say that…”

Take the common rebuff: “You only argue in favour of a public vote because you’re a Remoaner” (coupled here with another disreputable move: name-calling). It may well be that most who argue for – or against – a public vote on Brexit are motivated by their view of the 2016 result. But personal motive is utterly irrelevant to the rational assessment of a debate, as philosophers have recognised since antiquity (hence the fallacy has a Latin name: ad hominem).

Imagine a judge saying to a defendant: “You’re only presenting this argument because you want to be acquitted, so the jury should ignore what you say.” Or one scientist attacking a rival: “You’re only presenting those experiments because you want to promote your theory, so they should be ignored.” What matters in getting to the truth is not the motive of those who present some argument, but whether their argument is good or bad.

Playing up false analogies

Many other fallacies arise from misleading analogies. For example, I suspect that opposition to another public vote is largely founded on the British love of sport and fair play. The 2016 referendum divisively pitted “Leavers” against “Remainers”, and when the referee blew the final whistle, the Leavers had won.

Remainers later cast doubt on how fairly the game had been played, with shenanigans on social media that were dubiously funded and so on. But many on both sides saw such complaints as losing with bad grace: we generally think one should abide by the referee’s decision, whatever the action replay might reveal. But whether the same principle should apply to electoral malpractice and a result with huge significance for the country’s long-term future is highly debatable.

The sporting analogy can also falsely suggest that we can be expected to exhibit the same loyalty to “our side” as we do in football or cricket. But in politics it is obviously entirely reasonable to change our mind as we learn from events. Hence we expect to be offered new elections every few years, rather than allowing politicians to hijack our democratic voice by taking for granted that we irrevocably belong to “their team”. Those who voted for Brexit in 2016, but have since changed their mind, will understandably dislike being taken for granted in this sort of way.

Promises can be cancelled as well as broken

A related point is that our political choices are far more likely to be conditional than our sporting allegiances. Many voted for Brexit because they were told that it would enrich the country (particularly the NHS) and pave the way for easy trade deals around the world. If their support was conditional on that expectation, then they cannot legitimately be counted as committed “Leavers” if the reality turns out to be quite different. So unless we check voters’ opinions after the available options have been clarified, we simply cannot know what their preferences would be.

Nor should politicians consider themselves unconditionally bound by any “promise” made under such circumstances. If you and I normally drive home from work together, and you promise to take me instead to the local football stadium tomorrow evening, I would feel justifiably aggrieved if – after the match has been cancelled – you insist on still taking me to that now unwanted destination against my will, “to honour your promise”. Promisees are standardly accorded a right of cancellation.

“Will of the people”

Even more misleading than talk of “Leavers” and “Remainers” is referring to “the British people” as though this is a unified population with a unified “will”. Many have changed their mind since 2016, but even if they had not, we now have a significantly different electorate – more than two million newly eligible young people, while many older voters have died. With voting highly correlated to age, and more than 80% of the young reported as favouring staying in the EU, demographic change alone could easily have moved the overall balance of opinion.

Is it then fair to bind the current “British people” by a marginal vote of a somewhat different population three years ago, without giving them the opportunity to express a different view? It is particularly extraordinary to see Westminster politicians insisting on this, while themselves voting repeatedly on the prime minister’s deal, free to change their minds on a timescale of days.

A transparently fair vote of the British people – allowing them to take account of what has been learned since 2016 – cannot plausibly be represented as “anti-democratic”. Yet many politicians are wrapping themselves in misleading rhetoric to justify shutting their ears to public dismay about where we are heading.

Perhaps they can be persuaded otherwise by arguments like those above. But if not – and unless fault can be found in those arguments – then we do have to wonder whether something else is really driving them: such as personal ambition, or political ideology and lack of interest in the democratic will. Such politicians need to be called out and required to answer rationally. They must not be allowed to hijack our future with cheap rhetorical slogans.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

8 Responses to “Brexit rhetoric: fairness, fallacies and false analogies”

  • The problem about rhetoric is that it obscures the usual rules of fair play.

    You say: “We generally think one should abide by the referee’s decision, whatever the action replay might reveal.” Yes: we think that the referee must have the final decision. But we allow that it might be written into the rules that action replays can be used in settling challenges. In major tennis championships, line call decisions can be settled after the event. Technology, in the form of HawkEye, has enabled it to be determined where exactly the ball had actually landed.

    It’s a question what the rules were when UK citizens voted in June 2016. The referendum having been described as “a massive democratic exercise”, one would think that the rules for democratic voting in the U.K. had been observed. But then then one might think that the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) has played something like the role of Hawk-Eye in seeing whether the decision reached was in accordance with the rules.
    A DCSM Committee, following its investigations, reported that Russian agencies ‘used Twitter and other social media to engage in “unconventional warfare” against the U.K. designed to amplify support for a Leave vote’. The Committee’s report also reminded us of evidence there is that the largest donor in the Leave.EU campaign was financed by the Russian government. (The Report is dated 14 Feb 2019. Of course it was outside the DCMS’s brief to consider the infractions of electoral law on the part of the two Leave campaigns. But only last week our memories were jogged of the refusal of the master-brain behind Vote Leave to attend a DCMS Committee.)
    The DCMS Report says: “The Government was very ready to accept the evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal case, an acceptance justified by the evidence. However, it is reluctant to accept evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum.”
    Why should it be that the Government is reluctant to accept the evidence? I suspect the answer is that the “will of the people” rhetoric has so much taken hold as to rule it out that people should be allowed to think that there was any such evidence, never mind what a Government Department reports.

    Of course it cannot be known what the 2016 result would have been save for Russian interference and overspending by the Leave campaigns. We can’t know where the ball would have landed. But just as a properly conducted confirmatory vote cannot plausibly be thought to be anti-democratic, so we should be allowed to put in question whether the 2016 referendum was democratic according to U.K. standards. And yet, as far as I know, no-one speaking in Parliament has ever put it in question.

  • Brilliant analysis and article. How can we get Westminster to seat down and read this article ? And then be prepared to discuss it publicly in an unbiased media outlet – if that exists ? The BBC continues to disappoint me with its so called neutral position on this Brexit fiasco.

    Alternatively, how can we get rid of all these third class politicians who presume to have a vocation and ability to rule over us and get persons of the calibre of Peter Millican to seek public office ?

  • The BBC tends not to make programmes extolling the joys of elephant hunting or defending death camps and torture, and in that sense exercises its judgement on what is right and wrong. However it feels obliged to provide balance and even-handedness on most other issues . Often this results in ‘false balance’ – it will do out of its way to find climate change deniers or conspiracy theorists because they increase ratings more than the dull and boring truth. Farage is undoubtedly more entertaining than John Major, hence he gets far more airtime.

  • A nice piece, John. But I suspect that the “referee’s decision” model is more influential in this case than the “judicial” model you mention. Whatever model we start from, however, the idea that it’s undemocratic to ask the people what they now think is ridiculous, and cannot stand up to objective critical analysis.

  • What sound, clear arguments we have read above from Peter Millican and Jennifer Hornsby, both professors of philosophy! Like David Quinn, in his response, I have often had a yearning for the deep, unbiased thinking of academics to be represented in politicians’ speeches and actions. It was great that the 19th century political and ethical philosopher, John Stuart Mill, was able to promulgate his hugely influential views in Parliament. Mill’s principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ remains as a strong concept in law-making.

    But I have reservations and riders to express. My yearning can only remain a yearning. Mill was an exception among academics, and I can see no practical means or likelihood for top academics’ ever exceeding more than a tiny proportion of MPs. And I detect in my yearning a streak of personal bias, in its probable, at least partial, derivation from the pro Democrats leaning of many academics in the USA, and the pro Remain leaning of the universities in the UK. I’m pro the academics’ influence because I am both pro Democrats and pro Remain.

    Moreover, to promote the influence I personally would like to accord to one sub-section of society does, on reflection, strike me as undemocratic – even though I could argue that generally their views tend to me more democratic than any other section of society that I can think of. Yet there are particular, mainly political, philosophers (including Marx, Nozick and Nietzsche) with views somewhat biased towards one or other end of the political spectrum. I have also considered what Trump’s response might be, were he sufficiently well briefed, to the suggestion that politicians should be required to have a qualification in philosophy: “You mean, like Plato, who was sacked by the ruler of Sicily as his political adviser for being an utter failure?” In a democracy the government really does need to represent the interests of all sectors of society.

    My final comment arising from Millican’s and Hornsby’s superb pieces is my regret that these, and many other wise contributions, are probably condemned to rattle around in the echo chamber of In Facts, appreciated by me and other Remainers, but doing virtually nothing practical to further the cause. I’d very much appreciate equally wise proposals as to how we, the public, can make it happen – Remain, that is.

  • Frank, I share some of your reservations. But I would strongly distinguish between philosophers in the role of objectively assessing arguments, and in the role of promoting controversial theories. Good philosophers are likely to be pretty much unanimous when it comes to the former, but obviously not the latter. I don’t think anything I wrote in this article ought to be seriously controversial. If on the other hand I wrote about my views on the merits or otherwise of Brexit, I would expect many well-informed people to disagree, whatever I said.

  • Your point about 2 million new voters is valid, but as you also say, voting correlated with age so about 2 million people got older and possibly wiser and would have changed their mind.