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Mon 17 June 2019
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As every day brings more uncertainty, Otto English asks how long will it take Brexit voters to accept that they have fallen prey to a vast Ponzi scheme?

In 1931, eleven years after jailing Charles Ponzi for defrauding millions of dollars from ordinary people, the state of Massachusetts set about reimbursing his victims. In order to be compensated, all investors had to do was hand over proof of assets, for which they would be repaid 30 cents on the dollar. This meant a substantial loss for some but the alternative – was nothing. The state advertised the scheme widely and waited for injured parties to come forward.

But very few did.

Some were simply too embarrassed. Many more were determined to hold out, believing that somehow – despite facing multiple counts of larceny – Ponzi would come good on his promises.

Twelve years later YouGov returned and asked the public if they thought, on reflection that the invasion of Iraq had been a good idea… only 37% recalled believing it had been the right course at the time.

Ponzi’s victims made up a broad cross-section of the American population at the turn of the 20th Century. The one thing that united them was that they had bought into his scheme and fallen prey to the same confirmation bias that causes lovelorn individuals to send money to Nigerian scammers – or invest in miracle health cures.

Turbocharged Digital Fraud

Little has changed in the subsequent ninety years. With the advent of the Internet fraud has, if anything, become more prevalent than ever. Fraudsters understand human weakness – and how to manipulate a susceptible public and the same unfortunately – is all too often true of politicians as well.

Take the Iraq War. In 2003, YouGov conducted 21 polls asking people if they thought intervention in Iraq was right or wrong. On average, 54% of voters influenced by a print and broadcast media that was overwhelmingly behind UK military involvement, believed war to be the right course.  

The US-led invasion promptly followed. Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs never materialised and the country descended into protracted and bloody anarchy – a war from which Britain took years to extract itself.

Twelve years later, YouGov returned and asked the public if they thought, on reflection, that the invasion of Iraq had been a good idea. By then just 26% said it had – but more interestingly only 37% recalled believing it had been the right course at the time.

Perhaps, over the space of a decade, some people had genuinely forgotten their opinions at the time. More likely, given the outcome – most were simply too ashamed to admit that they had fallen for such nebulous disinformation in the first place.

And so we come – as we inevitably must – to Brexit.   

The Great Brexit Scam

In June 2016, lured by the temptation of an eye-watering £350 million a week return on the outlay of a single vote, 52% of British voters invested in leaving the EU. The promised return was too good to be true. They would get back billions of pounds, control of borders, democracy, sovereignty and more. It would be a bonanza for our fishermen and farmers – and into the bargain, we’d have blue passports and a unicorn for every home.

In a decade or so very few Brexiters will own up to having voted for this catastrophic mess – and those who do – will still be blaming everyone else.

To get their sales-pitch successfully across, the leave camps used every cheap con in the book. They deployed dark advertising, they sent 196,000 targeted unsolicited texts, they stole data from insurance customers, manufactured fake news, fake facts and fake football competitions.

They breached electoral law.  

And they won.

The first great ploy of the Brexit Leave campaign was to convince people that they understood the profound complexity of it all. The second was to guile them into trusting that sooner or later – all would come good. Despite all the evidence since, many of those Leave voters still believe – just as Charles Ponzi’s investors did – that the investment will come through.

We are now left drifting in a period of profound uncertainty. Nobody knows what tomorrow, let alone next week will bring – but one thing is assured. In a decade or so very few Brexiters will own up to having voted for this catastrophic mess – and those who do – will still be blaming everyone else.

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