Even the government’s sporadic truth-telling is used to advance further falsehoodby Jonathan Lis / February 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
Indulge me, if you will, in a little thought experiment. Imagine that, in the run-up to last October, Boris Johnson had admitted that no-deal would cause untold chaos or disruption, and that people had voted for neither, but that he thought it would be worth it. That during the general election, he had spelt out the necessity of checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and carefully explained that, while the formal withdrawal was being “done,” the most challenging Brexit negotiations were just beginning. Yes, he said, Scotland had had a rough deal, the circumstances around the independence referendum had changed, and Brexit might now make independence more likely. Yes, he had once said he supported membership of the single market and the Leave campaign had promised unfettered access to it. Yes, Brexit came with economic and political costs, and those costs had not initially been made clear, but he still wanted people to support the project and the party delivering it.
If it sounds preposterous, it is because it is. We cannot imagine a political landscape where such a conversation might have taken place. Indeed, now Brexit has been “delivered” it becomes even less likely. The last four years were merely establishing the foundations of dishonesty, and now they have been completed, the work can begin to ensure people forget the truth altogether.
Since we left the EU two weeks ago, ex-MEP Daniel Hannan has scorned the Remain “doom-mongering” with the observation that nothing has changed, in spite of the fact we are now entering a transition period where that is the precise point. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has denied there will be checks for goods in the Irish Sea, despite the new international treaty which makes them explicit. And Johnson blustered his way through a speech in Greenwich in which he continued to insist on the sunlit uplands of free trade at the same moment as he was erecting new barriers to it. Such developments comprise an ongoing narrative that Brexit will be a success, even if all the evidence suggests otherwise.
But of course the government knows that people are not stupid. Everyone will see that there are checks taking place—particularly across the Channel. And so for the first time this week, Michael Gove admitted that checks would in fact take place. “We will need some friction,” he told business delegates. “It is an inevitability of our departure.” So there it is. A project that was guaranteed to cut red tape will massively increase it.
But here is where the government’s strategy becomes cleverer. Even at the moment it is being honest, it uses that honesty to promote a further falsehood. Following Gove’s comments, Chancellor Sajid Javid told the BBC that “of course we are not going to have completely frictionless trade,” but this would ensure a “better future” in which business “continues to thrive.” The “of course” is doing especially interesting work, given the government was denying such claims as opposition fearmongering just nine weeks ago.
This is a dual process of gaslighting and forgetting. The government is seeking to convince people that they should want this kind of Brexit, while making them forget that in 2016 they were promised the exact opposite. To ensure success it must engineer the situation where nobody cares, and even if they do, it is too late to do anything about it. Honesty, in this context, is itself a form of cynicism.
Ministers have never levelled with people. They have not explained the impossibility of full control or the abstract nature of sovereignty in an interdependent world of political treaties and trade deals. But they have also never even asked if voters would choose that imagined sovereignty over their current prosperity. They have simply insisted that we can have everything.
Why has the government never admitted to its deception? The answer is simple: it hasn’t had to. The Conservatives won a massive electoral victory two months ago without telling the truth or even engaging with it. We never even expected them to. The total lies have been answered with total reward.
There is no reason why voters cannot engage with difficult questions or choices. Remainers may loathe the concept of losing jobs or reducing prosperity for the sake of an idea, but that is a choice an electorate is entitled to make. Sadly, nobody has ever asked them to make it. Wonder why? Extend the thought experiment and imagine how the referendum would have turned out if Gove had made his recent comments just before the vote in 2016.
Gove and Javid’s comments illustrate the other key point about the government’s contempt. It is not aimed just at people, but also business. Because the government refuses to admit the economy doesn’t matter, there ensues a curious cognitive dissonance whereby business leaders appear at meetings, request alignment and act as though everything is normal, while the actual politics take place on an entirely different plane of reality. Business doesn’t matter and never has. How could it? This is nothing to do with industry or jobs but identity and mythologised power.
The most honest thing Johnson has ever said is the only thing he now disavows: “fuck business.” That was his policy then and remains so now. It is, indeed, the only policy which lets Brexit make sense. Jobs and industry are expendable because they are not the point.
But despite everything, honesty may yet have the last laugh. The government may be running from the truth, trying to convince people not to recognise it when they see it, but the truth may ultimately catch up with them. Because really this is about the honesty of power: the power we lack and power we have just voted away. While ministers privilege lies, they ignore the fundamental truths: we cannot pick and choose the consequences of global cooperation and we can’t have it all. Nothing we get will ever be as good as what we had and gave away. In time, that could produce a new honesty about patriotism too: love and acceptance of the country we really have, not the one we yearn for or misremember.
And so our thought experiment leads inexorably to its conclusion. The main problem with Brexit is not that it privileges politics and emotion over jobs and economics, grave though that problem is. It is that Brexit’s leaders cannot bring themselves to admit that truth. Any major national project spearheaded by identity and nostalgia would be toxic. The insistence on transcendent dishonesty makes it uniquely destructive.