I know many Leave voters. Most of my family. Around half of my friends. Lots of the people in the immigrant community in London I grew up in. (We’re bad immigrants, being anti-EU, so we never feature in the migrant-sympathetic commentary of EU-pining hacks.) And not one of them has ever said they chose Brexit because of that £350m-for-the-NHS thing on the side of a bus. The idea that that bus swung the referendum, that it duped the voting hordes, has become one of the great, and nasty, myths of the Brexit era.
The bloody bus is back in the news this week after Boris Johnson said he’d like to get our cash back from the EU and possibly give some of it to the NHS. Judging from the reaction to his words — reams of press outrage, a finger-wagging letter of condemnation from the UK Statistics Authority, a Twitterati on the floor, fanning itself, struggling to breath — you’d think Boris had driven the actual bus down Oxford Street or repeated verbatim its questionable claims. But he didn’t. All he said in his Telegraph column is that leaving the EU will give us more control over ‘roughly’ £350m a week, and it would be good ‘if a lot of that money went on the NHS’.
So contrary to all the aghast op-edding, he didn’t say leaving the EU would boost NHS coffers by a tidy £350m a week. He said it would give us say-so over a certain amount of money, and we could choose to spend that money on health if we like. That’s it. The End. And breathe.
The misrepresentation of his comments was perfectly summed up in a New Statesman piece, which opened:
‘In a column for the Telegraph, Boris Johnson has repeated the false claim that Brexit will result in £350m a week for the NHS. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week,” he writes. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”’
This is hilarious: the one-line summary of Boris’s comments — leaving the EU would ‘result in £350m a week for the NHS’ — is directly contradicted by his actual comments:
‘It would be a fine thing if that money went on the NHS.’
I know standards are slipping in the media, but journalists surely understand the word ‘if’? It’s a conjunction that signals something will happen if something else happens first. In this case if we make a choice to spend that wad of EU-released cash on the NHS. ‘If’ is not ‘it will result in’; ‘if’ is ‘it might result in’. The difference is colossal. For the media to mangle Boris’s words in articles about how Leavers mangled the facts is pretty cute.
What’s really striking is that even the actual bus, that accursed bus, didn’t say ‘will result in’. Really. Its wording was: ‘We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.’ This is fairly vague. Some might say dishonestly vague, which is cool, they’re probably right. But it doesn’t say, ‘We will spend £350m a week on the NHS’. It basically says: ‘We give loads of money to the EU. We should use that money in other ways.’ Even the bus, which I think was naff, didn’t make a cast-iron cash promise.
Boris, and others, are also getting it in the neck over the actual amount we’ve been paying into the EU and will now save. There’s a spat over whether he's confusing gross and net. This is what the UK Stats Authority arrogantly tells him off for. Some say our weekly contribution, and thus saving, is closer to £200m per week. Okay. But that is also a vast amount of money. It’s remarkable that the kind of people who usually insist that public spending be well-aimed and used to assist the less well-off can be so cavalier about our pumping of 200 million a week into the EU. This Brussels black-hole suck on British cash will remind many Leavers why they voted against the EU: they see it as a distant, uncaring, filthy-rich oligarchy. Some people, I fear, don’t appreciate how ridiculous they sound to the struggling, everyday Brexiteer when they scoff: ‘Actually, I think you’ll find we only give the EU £200m a week…’
Here’s the great irony. That bus started life as a rubbish piece of Leave propaganda but has now become a rather sinister exhibit in Remainer propaganda. The reason they elevate this bus above all else, above all the other BS both Leave and Remain spouted last year, is because they genuinely think it turned voters. That it dazzled our little minds. That it duped the throng. It is so deeply patronising. And it is also a lie. The idea that we voted against the EU to get a bit more bob for nurses is a laughable and historic delusion. Some people obsess over this bus because they cannot face the truth: huge numbers of people voted against the EU, not because they want more hospital beds, but because they wanted to upturn the arrogant establishment and revolt against politics as we know it. A bus? This was a juggernaut.