politics

The case for Brexit was built on lies. Five years later, deceit is routine in our politics | Will Hutton


After five years, the biggest casualties of Brexit are in plain sight. Integrity and decency in public life are crumbling. Because so much of the case for Brexit is false, the political modus operandi of the Brexiters, now dominating our political culture, has become a refusal to accept responsibility for mistakes, overclaiming, deceit and sometimes outright lies to justify the unjustifiable. Once the electorate can no longer trust what they are told, democratic debate is denied. We have been robbed of a core right of citizenship.

It is a form of coup, but with a cloud of nationalist hyperbole disguising the threat to parliamentary democracy. To hold power, or challenge it, in a democracy requires continual argument and discussion, the precondition of which is a commitment to truth-telling and a shared acceptance of facts, however differently they may be interpreted. Trash those preconditions and we inevitably slide into a universe of division and distrust impervious to rational argument. We are all belittled.

It is as the Brexit right wants. Brexit has given it a cause and a political coalition that leaves it more firmly in control of power than at any time since peak Thatcherism. It is not only partisan rightwing policies – from the impending assault on public service broadcasting to the criminal failure to provide the additional teaching to compensate for Covid-induced teaching losses – it is the gerrymandering that favours the Tory interest.

Voter suppression; rendering the Electoral Commission even more toothless; ensuring all trustees and chairs of public bodies are Conservative; weakening judicial review; abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; eliminating any proportionality in the voting system for mayors; not accepting the doctrine of ministerial accountability. And all couched in a language of defiant nationalism so that critics can be dismissed as unBritish friends of the foreigner and outriders for wokedom.

This entire edifice is the consequence of Brexit being indefensible in rational terms, so that even boasts of success rest on presentational legerdemain morphing into deceit. Thus, last week, the unpersuasive list offered by Boris Johnson in favour of Brexit. It comprised: eight freeports (permissible within the EU and whose limited success is created by diverting economic activity from elsewhere rather than creating activity); a successful vaccine programme “impossible” within the EU (since 1 June, Germany, France and Italy’s seven-day average vaccination rates have exceeded Britain’s); control of our borders (numbers of EU immigrants have fallen while numbers of non-EU immigrants have risen so that overall immigration is barely changed); investment in jobs being unlocked (to the extent the government has made any such investment, it would never have been prevented by the EU); finally, achieving the Australian trade deal (under which Australian exports to Britain will rise six times more than British exports to Australia). In truth, the gains are either nonexistent or paltry.

The losses on the other hand are massive, real and not addressed by ministers. Our trade with the EU has fallen by a fifth in the first three months of 2021, a drop normally associated with an economic slump. The international barons of private equity circle our stricken firms in an orgy of asset-stripping. We have fallen from first to fifth in the ranking of states winning EU scientific research funding. Cumulatively, exports of services are now more than £100bn below what pre-Brexit trends suggested. Farmers are losing 25% of their basic EU grant this year and tremble for their viability. The prospects of Irish reunification have never looked so likely. UK relations with the EU are suffused with hostility and distrust. A new concert of powers to govern the world – the US, the EU, India, China, Russia and Japan – is discussed in Washington, a list that conspicuously does not include “Global Britain”.

Small wonder that Johnson and the Conservative party want to see Brexit as a done deal from which there is no going back – “We’ve sucked that lemon dry,” he told the Atlantic magazine. To acknowledge these weaknesses would delegitimise the whole enterprise: thus, further deceit compounds the original deceit, sin on sin. No government minister can acknowledge, for example, the astonishing asymmetry of the Australian trade deal and its disproportionate advantage to Australia or the concessions made on meat standards. Johnson and the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, portray the frictions in trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain as a surprise, even though Johnson resigned over Theresa May’s backstop designed to avoid them. The dissimulations don’t wash.

There are some signs that the public is noticing. Today’s Observer Opinium poll shows 43% now disapprove of the government handling of Brexit, up 4% since January; only 33% approve, down 3%. Perhaps even more surprising, given the paucity of public argument in favour of the EU, 27% would rejoin (against 22% who want more distance), while another 22% favour a stronger relationship.

Moreover, suspicions that the government is not straight with the country are spreading beyond the argument over the EU. Journalist Peter Oborne argues in his remarkable short book The Assault on Truth that the culture of truth abuse and avoidance of responsibility are part and parcel of the entire approach of Johnson and his government – from the referendum campaign to the management of Covid, aided and abetted by disgracefully compliant media.

Yet Brexit is at the heart of this struggle over truth and integrity: the lies that gave birth to it led to Johnson’s rise to the prime ministership. It is this recognition propelling the rapid growth in membership of pro-European campaigning groups such as the European Movement and Grassroots for Europe. Citizens, despairing of a Labour party that refuses to do battle on the central fact of British politics, are doing what they can to challenge the Brexit lie. They are acting to preserve integrity. After all, big lies, whether communism or imperialism, collapse in the end. But such collapses need citizens to act.

Will Hutton is an Observer columnist



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