In 1999, the EU elections were dominated by Labour and the Conservatives, with Ukip getting little more than 6 per cent of the vote. It was the second year of a Labour government that would bring us a decade of economic and political stability – until the global financial crisis.
Fast forward to today. Recent opinion polls give the Brexit party over 30 per cent of the vote for the European elections, a party with no members and Nigel Farage being the only recognisable person in it. Government business has ground to a halt because of Brexit and the withdrawal bill has still not been passed by parliament.
How did the UK get in this situation where those overseas see us with a mixture of incredulity and sadness? It’s a story of political deceit and media disinformation. Four big lies that were told that had profound consequences on the people and how they were governed.
The first lie was austerity. Politicians, but also the media, told us the government had to cut spending to prevent another financial disaster. Most economists disagreed with this theory. There was never even a chance of a financial crisis in the years after 2010, and even when that became clear to everyone, austerity continued. I estimate the average household lost resources worth £10,000 as a result of this disastrous policy, and many suffered much more than the average.
The second lie had two components, and together they led to the Conservatives’ victory in the 2015 general election. The first was that the Labour government had been profligate before the crisis. A simple look at the data shows this to be untrue. The second was that the economy was strong. In reality we had the slowest recovery in centuries and an unprecedented decline in real wages.
The third lie was that immigration, rather than austerity, was responsible for those falling wages and reduced access to public services. The Conservative Party and their supporters in the press had started pushing this lie during the Labour government. Under the 2010 coalition, the lie was embodied in immigration targets that were never met. This helped create a public view that controlling immigration was important but because of freedom of movement, the goal was impossible to achieve.
This context was the fatal background to the Brexit vote: the biggest and most damaging lie of all. The right-wing press groomed its readers with countless stories of “Brussels bureaucrats” that were mostly untrue. As a result of this misinformation, the public questioned the economic impact of Brexit, but believed limiting immigration would improve their access to public services.
Where did these falsehoods come from and why were they not challenged? The answer is neoliberalism and a ruthless desire for power. The aim of austerity was to shrink the state, something that is unpopular among the overwhelming majority. Creating a panic about the deficit was an opportunity to achieve a key goal of neoliberalism through deceit. Neoliberals have no desire to restrict immigration, but they correctly judged it was a means to gain votes among left-leaning, socially conservative voters. Anti-immigration feeling combined with the impact of austerity created the perfect conditions for a vote to leave the EU, a vote made possible by a Conservative victory in 2015. The leaders of Brexit were partly motivated by a belief that the EU was preventing the neoliberal goal of further deregulation in labour markets and environmental controls.
The only way out of this chaos is to elect a radical government that can tackle some of the inequalities that were created by a neoliberal era. But they also need to do something about a rabid right wing press and a broadcast media that balances lies with truth. It is a tragedy of our times that the one party pledged to do this has a leader who thinks he can compromise with Brexit.
Simon Wren-Lewis is an emeritus professor of economics and fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford. He blogs at mainlymacro.blogspot.com and is the author of The Lies We Were Told: Politics, Economics, Austerity and Brexit