Calling Out Brexit ‘Bullshit’ in ‘Left Behind’ Britain

New research by Matt Wood, Ivanka Antova, Mark Flear and Tamara Hervey explores people’s reactions to the claim that leaving the EU will enable £350 million a week to be spent on the NHS.

Bullshit has gained prominence as a concept for critically analysing how bad ideas, for example deficit fetishism, come to be politically successful. As Frankfurt explains, unlike outright lying, bullshitting involves a lack of concern for factual information in favour of trying to shape attitudes and beliefs. Political economists have become convinced that bullshit is widespread and affects voters. Hopkin and Rosamond are concerned that voters shy away from the complexity and abstraction of macroeconomics, and cling to more easily relatable concrete concepts like a household budget.

Calling out Brexit Bullshit? The NHS Brexit Bus

How effective is bullshit? The 2016 vote for Brexit is ideal ground for testing this question, and existing studies argue bullshitters were effective in driving support for Leave. But to what extent can those living in disadvantaged areas push back against them?  Our research project focuses on one of the most prominent pieces of bullshit during the referendum: Vote Leave’s claim that leaving the EU would enable £350 million a week to be spent on the NHS. It was plastered on the side of the campaign bus with an NHS logo on, violating rules about using the logo without NHS permission. The claim was bullshit not simply because the UK does not send £350 million per week to the EU. It also receives significant payments back from EU structural funds, and the sum did not account for the £39 billion the UK now owes Brussels as a result of leaving.

Since the referendum this bullshit claim has both been rebutted, and reasserted. Do people still believe it? How do they interpret it? Our study takes us to four ‘left behind’ towns – two in the north of England and two in Northern Ireland. Our method is essentially observational and qualitative in nature, with over 400 interviews in five town centres so far. We show local people a picture of the battle bus and record how they react, to elicit qualitative data from ‘left behind’ groups who would not usually respond to a survey or attend focus groups.

Calling out the £350 Million promise

Our results show similar negative interpretations of the battle bus, although slightly different in tone. In Northern Ireland, reactions were characterised by incredulity and scepticism. Two in Newry called it out as “’bullshit’ and that everyone knew it at the time” and ‘absolute bullshit’, while others used combinations of words to similar effect – ‘a ‘complete hoax’; ‘manipulation’; ‘a load of old crap’; ‘a lie is what it is!’ and ‘a joke and a lie’. We found the bus prompted reflection on the NHS and the poor state of public funding, but simultaneously scepticism and deep distrust. Our notes show in one conversation explicitly mentioning ‘bullshit’ that the person ‘did not dispute the figure, but argued that he could not see the money ever being put in the NHS. At the same time he thought that money for the NHS had a better chance to come in the NHS if we were out of the EU’.

Here, we see a kind of double-think going on around Brexit and the NHS. Even though the participant is aware the promise is bullshit, the promise nevertheless holds him captive as he continues to speak. He reflects on the logic of the promise – extra money could be used in the NHS, which he values, if it were being sent to the EU for no appreciable reason.

This demonstrates the power of bullshit – it manipulates the desires of people who seek material benefits that would never emerge if the outcome that is offered (leaving the EU) did happen, with the promise that those benefits could be made to emerge through some imagined process. And it does so by reference to ‘common sense’ or ‘folk’ knowledge (if the money doesn’t go to the EU, it can go to the NHS), rather than explaining how the UK’s relationships with the EU actually operate, and the implications of leaving.

In Northern England, we did not find explicit acknowledgement of ‘bullshit’, but we did find numerous references to lies, and significantly more anger. Upon being shown the card, people reacted with ‘a pack of lies’, ‘Farage, lies, deceit, it’s all wrong!’; ‘it’s all lies’, and ‘Lies and deceit’. Ten of our conversations in the town of Rochdale started out in this way. Participants mocked the bus: ‘[pointing to the bus] is that Mr Frottage [sic] in the driving seat?! With Mr Johnson!’ [laughing]. Others were more aggressive: ‘They should take responsibility – criminal responsibility’.

Simultaneously, however, we also found hope within otherwise sceptical responses. One participant called the bus out as a ‘pack of lies’ then “praises the NHS: ‘I used to be in an institution and they saved my life … ‘they should all get bonuses’”. Similar to Northern Ireland, participants were distrustful of the bus. They had heard ‘it’s all lies isn’t it?’. But they simultaneously reflected on the desirability of investment in the NHS. While recognising ‘bullshit’ at play in the campaign, this did not lead them to reject the logic behind the Leave campaign’s bullshit promise entirely. Instead, discussing the bus led to an ambiguous sense of frustration.

Seeing through Bullshit

A constant theme in our conversations the need for more investment, especially in frontline staff, rather than infrastructure or organisational capacity – pay rises for nurses and doctors, recruiting more staff, making hospital beds and medicines available, and, most of all, reducing waiting times. This evidence is unsurprising. A national survey by the King’s Fund in 2018 showed long waiting times; staff shortages; a lack of funding; and money being wasted were the four most prominent reasons for dissatisfaction with the NHS.

What our study shows is even though our participants often agreed the battle bus argument was a malicious attempt at manipulation, they saw, and used often heart-wrenching personal stories to convey the clear need for investment. And in many cases, especially in the north of England, they linked that investment with leaving the EU. Hopkin and Rosamond worry about ‘a discursive free-for-all in which intellectual coherence and empirical falsifiability are increasingly absent’. In our study we’ve found participants well aware that the discourses they were fed around Brexit were bullshit. But we also found they were clear sighted about how Britain’s NHS is being starved of funds to meet their needs.

Further information about the Health Governance after Brexit: Law, Language and Legitimacy project can be found here.