Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lies and lying by implication

The UK voted (by a narrow majority) to leave the EU this week. I am furious about this and terrified about what it says about us as a country and what it means for our future, both as a country and for me personally. Nevertheless, life goes on, so here's an EU referendum-themed blog post on lies and lying by implicature (meaning beyond what is said).

A lot of the debate raged around the figure of £350million, which was claimed by the Leave campaign to be the weekly amount the UK spends on the EU. This figure is itself not actually accurate, and it was quoted even more inaccurately (I heard it mentioned as the daily amount, for instance), but the main deception here was the idea that this £350million a week would be spent on the NHS if we voted to leave the EU. Immediately after the result was announced, Nigel Farage said that this promise would not be kept and that if you voted for Leave on that basis it was 'a mistake'. This was no surprise to those of us who knew that there was no £350million a week, or to people like me who assume that Farage is lying every time he says anything, but a large proportion of the 17million Leave voters did apparently believe this promise from a politician with no ability to enact anything.

After the result and subsequent backtracking, people said things like 'no one ever promised that £350million would be spent on the NHS'. Other people responded like this:

This makes that point that they did indeed say that they would do exactly this. Here, it's absolutely impossible for it to be read any other way:

Pronouns are notoriously slippery little buggers and their meaning is entirely context dependent. They refer back to something in the discourse, and what that referent is depends partly on some syntactic constraints but mostly on whatever is the most recent possible referent. Here, it's more or less impossible to interpret 'it' as referring to anything other than the £350million:

(It could do, if that ellipsis included some other referent. Imagine: 'Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I only get £5 pocket money per week, but I would spend it on the NHS.')

Here, the Leavers have some wriggle room: nowhere do they actually state they'll spend the £350m on the NHS:

They merely make the point that we spend £350million on the EU, and that we should spend some unspecified amount on the NHS instead. If we put an extra fiver into the NHS, that would technically be fulfilling this. Not only that, they don't even promise to do it (which they can't anyway): they say Let's, which is a suggestion (a 'hortative'). A hortative has no truth conditions, which means it can't be true or false, and it certainly isn't equivalent in truth conditions to 'We will spend £350million a week on the NHS'.

However, this is a sticky legalese way of getting out of it. If you write two sentences on the side of your battle bus (actually, they're one sentence, but an ungrammatical one - they need some punctuation in there), it's entirely reasonable for people to assume that they're related. It would be disingenuous and misleading to say that the 'fund' in the second clause does not have any relation to the '£350million' in the first, and I would consider that lying by implicature.


  1. To be fair to Farage (not something I ever wanted to do):
    1. The "£350 million for the NHS" 'promise' came from the official "Leave" campaign, of which he was not part.
    2. I think it's clear from the context and tone of voice in the interview that Farage is not using the word 'mistake' in an effort to excuse the 'promise' as some sort of mathematical error which has (surprise, surprise) only just become evident, but as a statement on which it was foolish to campaign.

    1. It seemed to me that 'mistake' referred to the voters making a mistake if they voted based on that, which is what I tried to convey in my post. I have no particular desire to be fair to him either, but I do try to be fair to everyone, and there's no point in playing unfair.