There is significant evidence that pro-Leave campaigns in the run up to the British EU Referendum broke the law. Leave.EU has already been fined £70,000 for failing to declare its spending, and Scotland Yard has dossiers of evidence that there were breaches of spending law by Vote Leave and Leave.EU (Grayson et al. n.d.; BBC News 2018); Aaron Banks is about to be investigated by the National Crime Agency. But what does any of this mean? What are the actual consequences of foul play?
Scotland Yard can arrest people, and that seems pretty hefty. The Electoral Commission can fine people, and that seems like a response of sorts. But unsporting behaviour in politics means you can still keep your trophy and call yourself a winner. But, in sport, where the stakes are all significantly lower, people take it a lot more seriously. Why is it that where absolutely nothing actually matters ― sport ― cheating is actually seen as a bad thing, and yet where things can matter to medicines, food and the affordability of living ― politics ― cheating is merely a partisan accusation, or a tactic that doesn’t corrupt the outcome?
Part of the answer is actually in the question: partisanship. I can already imagine the reader yelling ‘Remain cheated, too!’ And that is meant to balance the whole thing like that makes things legitimate, instead of an entire farce.
Let us play Devil’s Advocate here and simply accept that Remain and Stronger In also cheated to a comparable extent. There is evidence of cheating, and a corresponding fine, but its not to the same extent; the Electoral Commission has investigated and fined Stronger In significantly less, and yet some online articles insist the complete opposite is true (Cooper 2018). But if you are trying to make it a wash, what, ultimately, is your point? That cheating on both sides makes the result legitimate? That the future of the country should rest with who lies best? Do the laws simply not matter?
Do the laws matter, or is it just some bureaucratic loophole; a technicality being used to invalidate the referendum? Firstly, there is no conspiracy of those in power to invalidate the referendum result; it is ploughing forward. The complications in Brexit are not caused by a powerful conspiracy of Remainers sabotaging everything; they are caused by the fact that Brexit, as sold, is a paradoxical nonsense; the Brexiteers of Britain expect to be able to demand all the freedoms and none of the responsibilities of the EU, fracturing the very system that holds the EU together. The EU doesn’t have to accept that, and is powerful enough not to. (It’s weird that we would pull out of Europe and then complain that it’s politically and economically powerful enough to look after its interests, while simultaneously trying to throw about British power to look after our interests.)
But, it’s not just the conspiracy theory that’s nonsense; the idea that the laws are little technicalities is also a nonsense. Spending limits are there to level the playing field, and declaration of spending is there to keep democracy transparent and stop foreign interests influencing results. Colluding to break these laws is not some moral triumph of bypassing minor technicalities, but abject flouting of both the letter and the spirit of the law.
The truth is that if one side cheated the whole thing is a nonsense. And, if both sides cheated, the whole thing is not saved at all. But, a one off farce resting atop an otherwise good system isn’t all that bad.
But the system isn’t that good. Campaigns are not people, so campaigns cannot commit crimes. Only the people in them can. So, even if Scotland Yard decides to act on the evidence it has, fully investigate, and take individuals to court, the campaigns don’t even exist to be punished. You can’t punish a campaign, nor rehabilitate it. The only thing left of the entire campaign is its fruits; its result.
Scotland Yard, though, has already cited the political sensitivity of the referendum result as a reason to not investigate the individuals. There is such hysterical tension in British culture that the justice system feels impotent to act. Brexit is debilitating the judiciary. There’s not patriotism in that, there’s no control, there’s no sovereignty.
So, where are we?
There is no political institution willing to respect the rule of law and integrity of democracy by calling off the entire referendum result as a farce; there’s no judicial institution with the authority to even investigate the a campaign, only the individuals. There’s a media system and public that will to attempt to overlook the wrongdoing by accusing the other side of the minor infraction and then inflate them to be the same; this is followed by a willful dismissal of the fact that is not a sign of a well-operating transparent democracy, but corruption winning.
And while public trust in democracy, as well as the institutions that support it, rot in a quagmire of bad-faith arguments, the country continues to float in the direction this botched referendum has flung us in.
Corruption has won, and people seem to be celebrating.
Cooper, Charlie. 2018. “UK Elections Regulator Rejects Remain Campaign Spending Complaint.” POLITICO. January 15, 2018. https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-elections-regulator-rejects-remain-campaign-spending-compaint/.
Grayson, John, Kiri Kankhwende, Matthew Bramall, David Hall, Joe Guinan, Thomas M. Hanna, James Cusick, et al. n.d. “Police Still Not Investigating Leave Campaigns, Citing ‘political Sensitivities.’” openDemocracy. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/brexitinc/james-cusick-adam-ramsay/met-police-stall-brexit-campaign-investigations-claiming-polit.