The Treasury Select Committee’s report on the EU Referendum campaigns was reported as a plague on both your houses because both sides were criticised for their claims. Look at it more closely though and it wasn’t. The chair’s comments give a flavour. He described Remain’s claims as “a few grains of truth” and a “mountain of exaggeration” while it called Leave’s persistence with an outright falsehood “deeply troubling”. The committee delivered a sharp rebuke to Remain but was utterly scathing about the Leave. It criticised the behaviour of the campaign’s leaders in some of the strongest terms I have seen in a parliamentary report:
In their treatment of this Committee, neither Mr Elliott nor Mr Cummings, as individuals, have fulfilled Vote Leave’s commitment, made in their successful application to the Electoral Commission, to “create a valuable legacy for the UK’s democratic process”. Their conduct has been appalling.
If Mr Elliott and Mr Cummings consider that the Committee’s evidence-taking process has been protracted, uncomfortable or harmful to their cause, they have only themselves to blame.
Persistent refusals to appear and ad hominem (and false) attacks on the committee chairman showed a contempt for the entire process. This dismissive attitude to MPs and to anyone who asks awkward questions has typified the Leave campaign over the past few weeks. This sort of behaviour ups the ante for those further down the chain. If the leaders of the campaign thinks it is OK to behave like this, those with a lower public profile will take that as permission to be that bit worse. I have been astonished by some of the things I have seen coming from people who really ought to know better. Someone claiming to be a former FT journalist tweeting and retweeting hate-filled bile. People who, apparently, make their living as writers, filling their timelines with the most abusive and threatening language. I wonder whether, in their excitement, some people might have damaged their professional reputations.
And this ups the ante yet again. If ‘proper’ journalists and writers think it’s OK to do this sort of thing, then the gobs-on-sticks who infest the lower regions of Twitter think it’s OK to go that bit further, spew out the vilest abuse and issue death threats. The tone of the campaign has sunk so low that even Americans, plagued as they are with their own post-truth demagogue, have noticed.
While the media, and especially the BBC, have tried to be balanced by criticising the behaviour of both sides, it is clear that most of the nastiness has come from Leave supporters. It started at the top. Once you flick a metaphorical v-sign in a parliamentary committee, it legitimises contempt for those with opposing views and gives the really nasty people permission to do their worst.