There is a risk to most things in life. Earlier today I wandered round to the local butcher. I crossed three roads on the way there, three on the way back. Each time I contemplated the possibility of being mown down by a passing motorist, perhaps a regular Areté reader enraged by my Granta book bag, and each time I took the risk. Then I cooked raw meat, putting at risk not just me but my whole family. But after cremating the beef in an oven that was too hot for too long the one remaining risk was some carbon based poisoning. Living involves risks, and people assess these risks and act all the time.
But there is one activity in modern life that is risk free, where the prospect of someone mentioning that there is a risk, the teeniest tiniest risk that things might not work out, and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer will make his way to a television studio to condemn scaremongering.
For, apparently, if the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union this is risk free. A two year negotiation of terms to leave (during which access to the free market, and the principle of free movement of persons and free movement of goods remain up for grabs, with no clear advance determination as to the price for this in terms of continued adherence to European Union law) will not create uncertainty. It will not create any conceivable risk to any sector of the economy at all. The financial services sector will be unaffected. There will be no impact on interest rates. House prices will remain as they are. For departure from the European Union is an action which will lead to no adverse consequences, only good ones. Where people will be happier. The UK will have free trade with no restraints. We will either have vastly restricted or wholly unrestricted immigration (depending on who is selling the message). The sun will always shine. And for tea there will always be buttered scones (pronounced “scones” just the way you like it, not that abomination the other lot say).
At least this vision is the impression an observer has of the leave campaign following the reaction to the governor of the Bank of England’s evidence to the Treasury select committee today. Mark Carney said that there were risks if the UK remained in the EU – given the potential exposure to the ongoing commitment to economic and monetary union in the Eurozone. Mark Carney said there were risks if the UK voted to leave the EU – not least because Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon puts a two year cap on the negotiations of an agreement to leave, failing which the UK would be out and trying to negotiate access to the single market from the outside. His comments were not unreasonable. They were nuanced. They recognised an essential of human life – that decisions involve risks, and that decisions are best made when you are informed of those risks.
But the reaction of Jacob Rees Mogg in committee, and leave campaigners after, suggests they don’t want voters to be aware of any risks. For all will be fine. Their response reminds me of the approach of Alex Salmond during the independence referendum in Scotland. Any concern (however, mild) was presented as “scaremongering”. Because, in his view (and in the view of the leave campaign now) there could never be anything bad happening as a result of the one decision the panaceamonger is trying to sell. But I am of the view that this is not a good approach to politics. People (generally) are not stupid. People know that actions have consequences. People know there might be some things that won’t be as good, but are happy to find out what would be better to balance that up. Pretending nothing can possibly go wrong is mendacious. It makes those open to being convinced, the key voters in a referendum, sceptical- for they know that no decision has no downside.
If those who campaign based solely on the risks are project fear, those that pretend there are no risks are stuck in project Pollyanna.