Bad Argument Olympiad

Glen Newey

Aristotle identifies three types of 'proof' in public argument: logos, pathos and ethos, or reason, emotion and character. You wonder what'd he'd have made of the referendum campaign. From the get-go it's been a bad-argument Olympiad, marked by fallacious claims, scaremongering and self-parody.

Leave hardly enjoys sole patent on economised truth and orphaned sequiturs. As post hoc fallacies go, the claim that the EU and its various avatars have 'kept the peace' in Europe is pretty vacuous – one might say the same of the roughly coincident era of civil nuclear power. Similarly David Cameron's claim that Brexit could trigger world war three. Remain has clearly edged the economic argument, but nobody knows how Brexit would pan out even five years from now. George Osborne matches the crap about the EU costing Britain £350 million a week with crap about Leave costing families £4300 a year.

Flailing reason has ceded to emotion on both sides. Cameron's conceit that cosmic ruin would follow hard on Brexit's heels foments alarmism as shamelessly as Brexiteers' yack about immigrants. Remain, with Leave's connivance, has put it about that the EU is a migrants' holiday camp rather than an apartheid club barring such non-members as Syrian refugees, and finds itself skewered by the xenophobia it has helped foster. Each side's shtick has been to identify something bad – climate disaster, nuclear holocaust, terrorism, pension erosion, Jose Mourinho winning the premiership – and pretend it'll happen if the other side wins. Or, failing that, to pretend something good is bad. When Osborne, a rentier aristo, threatens a fall in UK property prices as an argument against Leave, he sounds like an envoy from another galaxy.

Proofs of character offer a shortcut for those boggled or bored by the 'arguments'. Voters are called to a grisly version of Tinder that asks them whom they're least revolted by being forced into bed with. Blair or Gove? Dave or a Nigel? Philip Green or Katie Hopkins? It makes celibacy look alluring. Proofs of bad rather than good character often prove punchier. Prominent in the woeful Remain campaign has been its use of 'experts' to awe the plebs, as in this telly ad (comments on YouTube disabled). Sceptics about political authority are likely to view with scepticism those presented as authoritative.

Remain still seems not to understand that people with shit jobs or no jobs, scraping by on benefit and coshed by austerity, are in no mood to be told by experts what's good for them. That they're in this mire largely because of the austeritarians who now offer Remain or Leave as its remedy redoubles the irony of political elites touting one option or the other as 'democratic'. The serially shat-on, told that they're dim and racist, react with performative renunciation: 'No we won't' trumps 'Yes we can.'

Then there's the main question of character: trustworthiness. Cameron now says Turkey won't join the EU in the next zillennium, after vowing to 'pave the road from Ankara to Brussels' in 2010. 'It's just wrong to say that Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit in the tent,' he said; the stitch-up with Turkey over Syrian refugees does just that. But the big cred-buster is that before his 'renegotiation' wrung a balloon and plastic key-fob out of Merkel, Cameron burbled that Britain could 'walk away' apocalypse-free from the EU.

Not that you'd trust the EU either. Jean-Claude Juncker's commission is an aloof, demos-proof elite fronted by an avowed anti-democrat. As Luxembourg's premier, Juncker crafted a tax-scalping regime that handed megacorps like the pharma giant Shire an effective tax rate of 0.0156 per cent. EU reform on Juncker's watch (he's there till at least 2019, maybe 2024) is out; small wonder Cameron told him to keep his trap shut during the campaign. The commission's cure for the Eurozone crisis prescribes neoliberalism finessed by technocrats. Neither Remain nor Leave has a credible vision of how things would go, notably as regards the EU's own future.

Logos, pathos, and ethos have begotten bathos, which has left the outcome tighter than a scrotum on Svalbard. The odds on Leave still under-price it (currently around 3/1). Even if Remain squeaks it, Cameron is probably corned beef. Remain's USP is the conservative one of clinging to the hearse for fear of something worse. But in post-deferential politics, that only works on people with a stake in the status quo.


  • 22 June 2016 at 9:39pm
    streetsj says:
    Frightening: I completely agree with Glen Newey (or at least I would if I knew what Svalbard's ball sac looked like.
    The weirdest thing about the referendum campaign has been Remain's reluctance to talk positives.

  • 22 June 2016 at 9:41pm
    streetsj says:
    I've just looked up Svalbard and I get it now.

    • 23 June 2016 at 3:12pm
      Colin says: @ streetsj
      You clearly haven't read your Philip Pullman!

  • 23 June 2016 at 7:24am
    cufflink says:
    I do so admire Glen's ongoing pursuit of rationality, and perhaps this Olympiad journey has proved a little too much for his size eleven brain trainers that he clumps along with.
    Aristotle was indeed a great systemiser but was not much of an economist and neither is the British referendee whose vital instinct (or Aristotelean character) is always to look for the hole in the sock.
    I shall remain a remain for as long as time remains to me - which may not be too long now and in the meantime cling to the hope that Juncker will be junked when it is finally realised that Radio Luxembourg no longer sounds the message.