DOMINIC SANDBROOK: When the cynical scares turn out to be bunkum we'll despise the elite more than ever
Many years ago, back when schools still took religious education seriously, I had to learn the ten plagues of Egypt for a test.
Remember them? Frogs, boils, locusts, darkness covering the earth, and all the rest of it?
All because Pharaoh — an unelected bureaucrat if ever there was one — refused to let the Jews go back to Israel and run their own affairs. Jexit, you might call it.
I used to think the ten plagues were bad enough. But they seem positively trifling compared with the apocalyptic warnings from our nation’s politicians in the past few days.
A good example came yesterday in, of all places, a branch of B&Q, where David Cameron and George Osborne were in extraordinarily bloodcurdling form.
David Cameron, left, and George Osborne, right, have been accused of making 'bloodcurdling' apocalyptic predictions about the UK's future outside of the EU
The Chancellor claimed that his team had produced two scenarios for the British economy after Brexit.
One was the ‘shock’ scenario, with Britain plunged into a year-long recession and economic growth slashed by 3 per cent.
But if that sounds bad, the other was even worse: ‘severe shock’, with growth falling by a staggering 6 per cent and almost one million jobs disappearing overnight.
Mr Osborne did not mention frogs and boils. Presumably, he is keeping them up his sleeve for some future occasion.
But Mr Cameron struck a suitably Old Testament note, warning that Britain would ‘self-destruct’ unless voters followed his advice to stay in the EU.
Ludicrously apocalyptic warnings of this kind have become ten a penny since the referendum campaign began in earnest.
On Sunday, the former bosses of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and B&Q claimed a vote to leave the EU would mean higher prices, fewer jobs and a plunging pound.
On the same day, the former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, weighed in, too, claiming Brexit would cost the ordinary voter nearly £150,000 over a lifetime — a figure he appeared to have plucked entirely out of the air.
Anything else? Oh, yes. House prices would fall by the oddly specific figure of 18 per cent, added Mr Osborne in another intervention.
Even the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, popped up with the cheery news that Brexit would be ‘terrible’ for the health service, risking the lives of some 30,000 cancer patients and jeopardising mental health care.
How can they all know? How, given how rapidly the international situation is changing, can they be so sure?
The answer, of course, is that they are making it up.
Now, as it happens, I actually think we should stay in the EU. I know it has its flaws, but I think we’ll probably be stronger and more prosperous if we stay and fight for Britain’s interests, rather than going it alone.
Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, pictured, said Brexit would be 'terrible' and jeopardise health care
But if there is one thing that tempts to me to vote to leave, it is the cynical scaremongering of the Remain campaign.
I realise, of course, politicians always pick and choose facts to win elections. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Even so, I think that the current referendum campaign has marked a new low in our national political discourse, with one exaggerated warning piled on to another in what Boris Johnson — himself no stranger to dishonesty, I might add — would probably call an inverted pyramid of piffle.
Mr Cameron’s reincarnation as an Old Testament prophet is particularly disingenuous.
Only a few months ago, he was insisting that, unless Brussels gave him the deal he wanted, he would be campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.
Yet now, he tells us that Remain has not only the best case, but the only ‘moral case’.
In his more lurid moments, the Prime Minister has even claimed that Brexit would not merely send Britain into recession, it would plunge Europe into war and could spark genocide.
If that is, indeed, the case — which surely no sane person believes — then why on earth did Mr Cameron call the referendum in the first place?
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And if the choice is so clear-cut, why did he bother with the farce of his non-existent ‘deal’ with his fellow EU leaders?
The truth, surely, is that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne were never interested in having a genuinely open debate.
That explains why, as soon as the campaign began, they were so quick to bombard voters with exaggerated warnings from their City friends.
Indeed, it emerged last week that even before Mr Cameron had secured his much-touted deal, he had enlisted one Rupert Soames, chief executive of the services company Serco, which has signed gigantic government contracts, to line up support in the City.
Mr Soames — the grandson of Winston Churchill, no less — has been encouraging City firms to mention Brexit as a serious economic risk in their annual reports, hoping that this will help to frighten floating voters into voting Remain.
Call me naive if you like, but I find the sheer cynicism of all this simply breath-taking.
But then, the Leave campaign has been no better.
To take a small but telling example, the Leave campaign consistently claims that Britain pays the EU a whopping £350 million a week. But as their spokesmen must surely know, this is simply not true.
In fact, when Britain’s rebate and other deductions are taken into account, our weekly EU bill is closer to £161 million, and even that includes a lot of development aid.
So why on earth don’t they just tell the truth? After all, £161 million a week is still a lot of money.
It says something about the tone of this referendum that one of the Leave campaign’s most respected supporters, the independent-minded Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, is refusing to hand out her own side’s leaflet about the possible effects on the NHS because it is simply dishonest.
According to the leaflet, Brexit would allow Britain to spend an extra £350 million every week (that figure again!) on the Health Service.
But as Dr Wollaston, a former GP, wrote yesterday, this is just not true. Her own campaign, she added wearily, should ‘stop treating the public like fools’.
Then, of course, there was Boris himself, sparking a huge row last week by throwing Hitler’s name into the mix, saying the EU wants a superstate, just as the Fuhrer did.
The absurdly shrill and sanctimonious response of his opponents only served to make the whole debate even more febrile.
Haven’t politicians always been like this, you may ask?
Well, I’ve been writing about them for years — and as a historian, I’ve researched centuries of political discourse.
And I don’t ever remember a time when the rhetoric was so hyperbolic and irresponsible.
Dominic Sandbrook asks whether our politicians are any better than Donald Trump, pictured, and his 'cavalier' approach to the truth during his election campaign
You might think the two warring sides went overboard in this way in 1975, when Britain held a referendum on the Common Market.
But the tone was very different then. I’ve been studying some of the literature from that campaign, and the contrast with today could hardly have been more glaring.
Back in 1975, competing spokesmen such as Edward Heath, Barbara Castle, Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn treated the public like adults.
In their speeches and articles, they seriously discussed the political and economic ramifications of European membership.
Apocalyptic predictions were almost non-existent. There were no lice and locusts, no boils and frogs.
Unbelievable as it may sound today, the 1975 campaign was measured and moderate.
Instead of terrifying voters, politicians tried to persuade them, with the result that the British people were better informed by the end than they had been at the beginning.
Alas, nobody will ever say that of the 2016 campaign. After all the years of waiting, it has been a genuinely wretched advertisement for British democracy.
My fear is that the way scare tactics have flourished in recent weeks will set a new low for our politics — and that, as a result, this kind of behaviour will become the norm at Westminster.
We can laugh all we like at American demagogues such as Donald Trump, with their blatant disregard for the truth and cavalier contempt for their audiences. But are our own politicians really any better?
Regardless of who wins the referendum, the real losers will be the voters forced to make a decision amid a blizzard of dishonest claims.
When those claims turn out to be bunkum, it will simply drive a wedge deeper between the electorate and a political class seemingly determined to take us all for fools.
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