Friday 11 February 2022

The tangled web

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive”  Sir Walter Scott

In an article this week the Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik neatly skewered the present political situation in the UK. Referring to Brexit amongst other things, she wrote that “an entire government has been built on fantasy and false promises” and made the crucial point “if your product is a con, you need a conman”.

It will be become more important, not less, to remember this if it turns out that we are seeing the end days of Boris Johnson’s premiership, for despite their close associations Brexit is not Johnson and Johnson isn’t Brexit. It’s true that Johnson has been complicit in creating the catastrophic mess that Brexit has become and told all manner of lies about it, as he has about so many other things. But the mess and the lies were inherent to Brexit. Brexit was the con, and Johnson wasn’t even the only conman.

It’s also important to understand what it means to say that the mess and lies were inherent to Brexit. The point is not simply that lies were told in pursuit of getting people to vote for it, or to defend the manner in which it was executed. That is true, but may not be so very different to other policies undertaken by many governments when, for example, statistics are manipulated in misleading ways or deceptive rhetoric is deployed. It might even be said that the remain campaign engaged in some of that. What’s different about Brexit is that it wasn’t just sold with lies, it actually consisted of lies.

This is the reason why it is not only justifiable but inevitable that, even as years go by, there continues to be outrage about what has been done, an outrage forcefully articulated by political commentator Jonathan Lis last week: “our withdrawal from the EU licensed a specific form of corruption: lying to people’s faces about things they could see before their eyes”. Continued outrage is justifiable because of the sheer scale of the offence, and it’s inevitable because now and for many years to come the consequences of the lies told are with us. More than that, the lies keep being re-told and added to – yes, by Johnson, but not just by Johnson: consider the numerous examples provided by Jacob Rees-Mogg in the remainder of this post. That is why it has proved impossible to ‘move on’ from Brexit.

The Northern Ireland Protocol lies

Nowhere is that more obvious than in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). The immediate crisis that developed last week when the DUP tried to halt Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) checks on the GB-NI border has abated somewhat, because of the court ruling which temporarily blocked that attempt pending another hearing next month, but the situation Is far from resolved. Meanwhile, the UK-EU negotiations continue as, it’s worth recalling, they have in one form or another for over a year now, under first Michael Gove, then David Frost and now Liz Truss. So do the UK threats to invoke Article 16, which go back to January 2021, just days after the NIP became operational, and were repeated this week by Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions.

RTE’s Europe Editor Tony Connelly produced an excellent account of the background to last week’s events, and what runs through it is the UK government’s dishonesty about what it agreed to in the NIP and its dishonesty in not implementing it. All of this ultimately derives from the foundational dishonesty of the Brexiters that their project created no need of any border at all (something repeated by Rees-Mogg in Parliament this week). Then, along the way, there was dishonesty about the EU’s short-lived plan to suspend vaccine exports, about the unilateral suspension of grace periods, about what Article 16 means, and about many other things which I’ve summarized elsewhere. The latest dishonesty would seem to be that by unilaterally axing the agreed checks, the NIP can be got rid of, or substantially ignored, without recourse to the Article 16 process.

Lies piled on lies

To emphasise, the dynamic here is twofold: lies repeated and lies added. As a source quoted in Connelly’s report says of the current events “We’re basically back to the trilemma of 2017”. Yet things do change in the repetition and in the new additions for, as the source goes on, “except now it’s worse, because at that time there was more trust that the UK government was actually trying to do something in the interests of Northern Ireland. Now you're dealing with the people who screwed Northern Ireland over and over again, starting with the referendum, starting with Brexit".

One of the consequences of becoming so mired in lies is that it is almost impossible to change course. Like a mendacious child or a cheating spouse, once the first lie is told it leads to the second and the third and then to a doubling-down on the first. Perhaps, early on, there could be a moment to come clean and start afresh, but at some point that becomes impossible. You are living the lie. Perhaps, even, it no longer seems to be a lie any more, and the lie is living you. I think that something like this has happened to at least some Brexiters.

At all events, because the NIP has become so shot through with lies, it has become all but impossible to take the obvious step, which would solve many of the current disputes, of taking up the EU’s offer of an SPS alignment agreement which was made at least as early as July 2021. This would get rid of most of the checks to which the government and the DUP object, has the support of farmers and others including those in Northern Ireland, and at one time was actually advocated by Edwin Poots and the DUP (£).

The sovereignty lies

It's conceivable that Truss will now take, or try to take, this step. But here another feature of how Brexit consists of lies comes into play. Neither the NIP nor any other aspect of Brexit exists in isolation from others. Hence, along with the lies about the NIP, the barrier to SPS alignment is the many lies (or, at best, misunderstandings) about ‘sovereignty’. On this account, to agree to ‘dynamic alignment’ would be to concede sovereignty to the EU and, thus, be a betrayal of Brexit. Again there is a foundational lie, and then a series of additions or permutations.

The foundational lie is that EU membership entailed a loss of sovereignty, something discredited by, amongst other things, the very first Brexit White Paper in February 2017 which stated that “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU” (paragraph 2.1). Then, like mould spores, the lies about sovereignty spread. It comes to mean that any role for the ECJ is a denial of sovereignty. It leads to false claims about how sovereignty enabled the early approval of vaccines (repeated by Rees-Mogg this week) and many of the other supposed benefits of Brexit. It takes strange and convoluted forms. In relation to SPS alignment these include that this would preclude a trade deal with the US when, apart from the fact that no such deal is in prospect, that implies that setting SPS regulations to suit the US would be fine but doing so to suit the EU would violate sovereignty.

The ’nothing should change’ lie

Even more bizarre is the idea – voiced by former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers in an interview on Radio 4 last week (starts 40.55) - that the EU should just accept that UK products meet SPS standards because, as yet, our rules haven’t greatly diverged. This is a version of the much older, deeper, lie that current regulatory harmonization would yield an easy and comprehensive trade deal which would be virtually indistinguishable from trading as an EU member. That was the basis of Liam Fox’s “easiest deal in history” claim, which is rightly much-mocked but is rarely examined for the flaws in its underlying reasoning. Those flaws made it irrelevant in the context of the UK wanting to have the right to diverge, just as Villiers suggestion is irrelevant whilst the UK refuses dynamic alignment.

All this in turn is a version of the even deeper, most intangible, strangest and yet perhaps most pervasive of Brexit lies. That, somehow, the UK could have Brexit and yet not be treated like a third country and, from that, the lie that if the UK was treated as a third country it would be ‘punishment’. This was again in evidence in the Villiers interview when she bemoaned the EU treating the UK as it does other non-members, and in this way being unreasonable. It’s also the basis of the lie – also told by Villiers – that Brexit had no implications for the Irish border.

In this way, the sovereignty lies intersect not just with those about the NIP but with those about trade and regulation. In relation to trade, apart from the point just mentioned, the foundational lie was the repeated referendum claims that “there is a free trade zone that stretches from Iceland to the Russian border, and we will still be part of it”. Yet the only realistic meaning of this – that, like Iceland, the UK would be in the single market – was denounced as a betrayal of Brexit as it would not restore sovereignty (e.g. over freedom of movement of people, but over regulation more generally). From this, new lies flowed, such as Johnson’s false claim that his trade deal meant there would be no non-tariff barriers to UK-EU trade, and all the subsequent attempts to downplay damage to trade as ‘teething problems’.

The ‘red tape’ lies

On regulation, the sovereignty lies intersected with the lie that Brexit would get rid of bureaucratic red tape, when the opposite was always going to be the case and has been demonstrated in the last year, as shown in this week’s devastating report from the Public Accounts Committee. It leads, as discussed in last week’s post, to all the current attempts to create ‘independent’ regulatory systems, even though in general these lead to more ‘red tape’.

A new example this week is the suggestion that the UK could “capitalise on our regulatory freedoms” by not implementing new EU car safety regulations – regulations the UK contributed to developing whilst it was a member – even though they would reduce deaths and injuries. Like many of the other deregulatory proposals, it probably won’t happen as it is so patently foolish and because of the fissures within the Brexit coalition, although with Rees-Mogg now appointed Brexit Opportunities Minister (sic) who can say?

Notably, Rees-Mogg’s first act was to ask Sun readers to provide examples of ‘petty EU regulations’ they would like abolished. It was a tawdry piece of populism, ludicrously invoking Lord Kitchener, presumably intended to suggest that this is ‘the People’s Brexit’. Actually, Rees-Mogg is likely to find that ‘the people’ are in practice rather attached to regulation, especially where it stops them being killed. For it is increasingly obvious that the de-regulation (or, more often, as per last week’s post, re-regulation) enabled by Brexit is a solution in search of a problem, rather than a response to any actual problem. Supposedly, just because it would use ‘our Brexit freedoms’ it must be ‘a good thing’.

This reflects the absolutely central flaw in the sovereignty lie, which is that it treats national sovereignty as an abstract notion of unimpeded freedom rather than as a practical tool for doing things with freedom. That is why Brexiters are incapable of seeing that the choice to be a member of the EU doesn’t take away sovereignty but is one of the things a country can do with its sovereignty. Brexit is another such thing that can be done with sovereignty – but it doesn’t make us ‘more’ sovereign, it just means we exercise sovereignty in a different and less effective way. The issue is not, therefore, sovereignty in the abstract, as a ‘good thing’ whatever the consequences (as some Brexiters would now have us believe), but whether the uses made of it have good outcomes (which is the way that, by and large, Brexit was sold to leave voters).

Again, once the basic lies have been told and believed it lodges and then gives rise to new lies. An example this week is the proposal from the Global Britain Commission that the UK could have “a massive post-Brexit windfall” by increasing exports per capita to the same level as Germany. It seems to have escaped the Commission’s attention that Germany has achieved this level of exports without leaving the EU, and so the idea of it being a windfall of Brexit is a peculiar one. It’s just the same old lie about the value of having an ‘independent trade policy’, dressed up in the new – and stranger – clothes that Germany provides the comparator.

The promises betrayed

Whilst a lot of these lies were inherent to Brexit, and were never possible to deliver even in theory, other kinds of lie are about promises that might have been delivered in theory but in practice turned out have been false. The obvious example here is the claim that the centrality of parliamentary democracy would be re-asserted (made again this week in Rees-Mogg’s execrable Sun article).

In fact, we’ve seen the government having to be forced by the courts to hold the Article 50 vote and by backbench rebels to hold the Meaningful Votes, an illegal prorogation of parliament, and a massive grab of Executive power through the use of ‘Henry VIII powers’ which looks set to continue with the forthcoming “Brexit Freedoms Bill”. In a similar way, Brexit has seen erosion of the powers of the devolved institutions. Moreover, the promise that Brexit would mean more parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals and other international agreements than was afforded to the UK as an EU member has not transpired and seems unlikely to.

One reason why such promises have not been kept roots back to the way the Brexit process unfolded under Theresa May (showing, again, that Johnson isn’t the only cause of the present situation) and the wider public discourse which obtained at that time. For she and others consistently represented parliament as being subordinate to and subversive of “the will of the people”.

This morphed into the idea, which Johnson continued and developed, of the government as a pure distillation of the people’s will, and parliamentary democracy as its usurper, in direct contradiction to the earlier message about Brexit and parliament. In this, and many other ways, the lies and dishonesty of Brexit have morphed into the much wider ones of the culture war and of the entire political landscape. Brexit, as Lis observes, was the “original sin” from which the rest flowed.

The multi-Mobius serpo-viral Brexit gaslighting device TM

In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of the Mobius strip to capture the way that Brexit events keep recurring as the same old lies and fantasies keep encountering the same old realities. And that does capture some aspects, such as the constant return to the Irish border trilemma. No answer can be found because no answer exists, so the lies just keep taking us back to the same place. But, as suggested in this post, a better image would be a more complex one of numerous such strips, intertwined and writhing around like snakes, and reproducing and mutating like viruses.

True believers in Brexit may, as speculated earlier, have come to believe all the lies to be true. The even bigger problem is that many politicians who know they are lies, especially if they are in the Conservative or Labour parties, pretend not know this. Admittedly it’s not always easy to tell the difference. For example, does Dover MP Nathalie Elphicke really believe, as she said in Parliament this week in a version of the ‘nothing should change’ lie, that the now endemic lorry queues in her constituency are “not because of Brexit but because of Brussels bureaucracy”? Who knows, but there are certainly many MPs, probably including some of those who cheered her, who know such things are idiotic nonsense but don’t speak out.

That arises from fear of their own parliamentary and constituency parties, of the media and of sections of the electorate, but it is horribly dangerous and corrosive. Dangerous because it means that nothing truthful, and therefore nothing practical, can be done about Brexit. Corrosive because it has spawned a wider dishonesty, as argued forcefully by former Prime Minister Sir John Major in a speech yesterday. Johnson may be the most consummate liar, but his demise will not end that dishonesty.

That is why, referring again to Jonathan Lis’s recent article, we must not give up on talking about Brexit. He is surely right that “the Brexit specialists may be exhausted”. I can certainly relate to that. He’s also right that “everything there is to say on Brexit has been said many times”. I can relate to that, too. And the reason it is so is precisely because of the endless repetitions of old lies and the new ones they spawn. If we stop pointing them out, they easily become ignored or forgotten.

More than that, the weaving together of strands of lies in the way I’ve described here is what enables Brexiters to gaslight the general public. It just becomes totally exhausting and confusing to disentangle the long chain of events that lies behind, say, the ongoing NIP rows and crises. It can be easier, even for the well-intentioned and well-informed, to become disorientated to the extent of wondering if the Brexiters may have a point. However, even if that happens – no, especially if that happens – it doesn’t solve any of the problems all the lies have created, it just takes away any prospect of them being solved.

Of course there is a way to escape the tangled web of lies that Brexit and Brexiters have woven. It is for all those who know them to be lies to start telling the truth, and for all those who tell the lies to be exposed.


Many thanks to those who completed the survey at the end of last week’s post (now closed, though if you are part-way through completing it you will still be able to submit your response when ready). As a result, I can say that, certainly for now, I will not be migrating this blog to Substack or any other platform, and I will not be charging for access. For those interested, I’ve written a short discussion of the survey results.

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