I have lost count of the number of alarmist warnings that have been raised on both sides in the run-up to the EU referendum. The so-called debate has amounted to little more than competitive scaremongering. And now, as we approach the final stretch, the fear card is now being played more irresponsibly than ever before.
Even so, Boris Johnson’s comparison of the European Union with Hitler’s Nazi Germany took the politics of fear to an unprecedented low. Such a historically illiterate and inflammatory remark reveals Johnson’s confusion about what is actually wrong with the EU. But although Johnson’s comparison is in poor taste, it is not qualitatively different to the other fearmongering claims made over the past few months. There is little difference, for example, between Johnson’s infantile reference to Hitler and his opponent David Cameron’s warning that if the UK votes for Brexit, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will be absolutely delighted.
It is difficult to keep up with the numerous tales of fear manufactured on both sides of the referendum debate. The Stay campaign has warned that Britain’s security would be seriously undermined if the UK leaves the EU. Cameron has also argued that, post-Brexit, Europe would slide into war. Brexit supporters have adopted the same tactic. They claim, for example, that the UK’s security will be compromised if it stays in the EU. The fearmongering is interminable. Both sides have claimed that either leaving or staying in would have catastrophic consequences for the economy, undermine Britain’s ability to control its borders, and weaken the nation’s farming sector.
Both sides now also accuse each other of using the politics of fear, even labelling each other as proponents of ‘project fear’. The frequent use of this phrase, project fear, offers a paradigmatic example of bad faith. Both sides practice what they condemn in the other.
Furthermore, the use of project fear as a term of abuse is no substitute for logical argument and an alternative perspective. Merely decrying the negativity of the debate is nothing but a sanctimonious pose unless a positive alternative is offered. Take Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. He said that he wants to ‘rescue the debate from the negativity and “project fear” coming from all sides of the Tory Party’. Which would be admirable if the Labour Party’s own contribution to the debate so far hadn’t been so thin and replete in fearful claims.