The last few days mark the point when it became crystal clear how badly the Brexit process is going. The reason? Dishonesty. Decade after decade of ingrained dishonesty, to the point that politics basically doesn’t know how to do anything else. Politicians on all sides are now faced with the shocking possibility of having to tell the truth – and simply don’t know what to do.
Actually, it’s more than just dishonesty. It’s a special toxic combination of dishonesty, accompanied by arrogance, and, somewhat paradoxically, cowardice, which seems endemic amongst politicians. This triad of unpleasant attributes so often accompany each other in politics, that there should be a special word for it, but I don’t know of one. I therefore refer to these three ingredients in combination as “The Toxic Political Poison” . I’ll shorten it to TPP, throughout this article.
The dishonesty is easy to spot: Over the last half century, it has become simply a joke “How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” The problem is, it simply has become true on all sides. This isn’t a left or right issue. It’s not about Labour, or the Tories, or UKIP. It’s about politics. Politicians lie – at least in the sense of not saying what they really think as a matter of course. Their words naviagate a safe space between not wishing to offend the electorate, and not wishing to step out of line with party policy.
And there we see the cowardice. Politicians are basically terrified of being unpopular, either with the electorate (in case they don’t get re-elected) or, with the higher powers of their party, for fear they will not climb the greasy pole towards higher office.
Which is where the arrogance comes in: The desire for greater personal power. And. often, politicians seem to think that if they lie now to get what they want, it doesn’t matter if it gets found out at a later date, because, by then, everyone will have become convinced that they were right anyway. Or maybe they think people are just too stupid to remember the lie provided it doesn’t come to light until some years down the line.
On no issue has this been more true than the European project. An endless stream of lies and half-truths back to the early 1970s. Each successive generation of politicians happy to lie, and put off “the problem” until tomorrow…because of this toxic mix of dishonesty, cowardice and arrogance – this Toxic Political Poison.
Let’s walk through that timeline to see what I mean:
1973 – Joining the EEC
We were taken into the “European Economic Community” in 1973 without a referendum at all. A fact which is often forgotten. The referendum was not held till 1975.
This was dishonest. At the time, the way this was justified was that the EEC membership represented just another trade deal basically and did not need to be referred to the people. It wasn’t a matter of great constitutional significance requiring a popular vote. Heath got the EEC vote through by cobbling together a enough votes between himself and labour rebels to get his vote through.
Even at the time of it’s instigation in 1973, Ted Heath knew a referendum at some point would be inevitable, but here’s the point: He banked on the fact that, once we were “in” people wouldn’t bother to vote “out”.
This was a classic example of TPP at work. It was dishonest to walk the UK into the EEC without a pre-approval by referendum. It was also obviously cowardly. He didn’t wish to face the possibility of losing a referendum. If he were sure he would win it, I’m sure he would have called it first. It was also clearly, in a sense arrogant, because Heath believed that, once in, people would see that we were right to join, so why risk the “stupid” people messing that up?
The referendum was held in 1975. An “overwhelming” 67% voted “yes” to remaining in the EEC. Notice however that only 64% turned out to vote, compared to the 72% of the 2016 referendum. This means only around 43% of people eligible to vote ever actually voted in favour of the EEC. This fell to just 35% in the 2016 referendum voting to remain. Meanwhile, for leave, in 1975 just 21% of people eligible voted to leave the EEC, versus 37% of the total electorate voting to leave the EU in 2016.
In other words an 8% drop in desire to stay of the total electorate and a huge 16% rise in desire to leave between the 1973 and 2016 referendum. Now personally, I think those are relatively meaningless figures, but again, TPP has been at work on the referendum result. Many remainers have dishonestly claimed that “only 37% of people ever voted to leave the EU”, while ignoring that being in the EU has never enjoyed an absolute majority in polling. It’s also arrogant, because it presumes to know what people who don’t want would vote if they did.
Nevertheless, Heath’s use of TPP worked well for him. He got the referendum result he wanted and we marched forward. On a TPP-fueled assumption that the people were happy this state of affairs.
1992 – Maastricht Treaty
Next,we go all the way to Maastricht in 1992. This, in many ways was the critical moment. At this point the pretense that the EEC was just a trade deal was pretty much cast off. The EEC officially became “The European Union”. We were members of it. We handed powers to it. It is frankly incredible in retrospect that this happened without a referendum in my view. Some how, the politicians of the day, John Major in particular, managed to utilise TPP to pass this off as a mere restructuring, which the ordinary British man in the street need not bother himself with. Dishonesty, cowardice and arrogance all in play again.
It is no wonder that John Major has so strongly supported “remain”. Not only is a leave vote, in many ways, a 20-year delayed referendum on Maastricht, but, if it comes to light that we now can’t leave, it will have been Major’s signing up Maastricht agreement which put us in that scenario. He will be responsible for taking an irreversible step in British politics, something which is generally understood to be unconstitutional, since “No parliament shall bind the next”. Of course, no one would ever know this was the case, unless they came to try and reverse Maastricht. TPP was at work again – in the fact that Major and his political associates of that time presumably assumed no one ever would have the opportunity to do so.
One can only imagine Major’s horror at the announcement of the referendum if he realised what it might unmask. Something akin to a serial-killer realising that building works are going on, on land where 20 years previously they hid bodies. This seems to me very much what is going on with Brexit: We are seeing decades of consecutive weak and cowardly political capitulations to Europe being exhumed from places where politicians of the time thought them to be deeply buried.
It’s important to realise the important point of order here: If a politician is to sign a treaty which permanently and irreversibly gives away things which were previously under sovereign control, a) They really ought not to do that wherever possible and b) if they do, they surely must make that explicitly clear to the electorate, and give the electorate of the day a say on the matter by referendum. It is not for a single politician or even a single parliament to decide this kind of matter.
1998 – Good Friday Agreement
Here is a case of another “buried body” which the current Brexit debate has dug up. Repeatedly, in the Brexit negotiations, the duty of Britain to ensure there is No hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has come up.
The reason this has been an issue is because the UK made this undertaking in the Good Friday Agreement. Essentially, the GFA has tied one hand behind our backs in EU negotiations and the EU have exploited this to maximal value. The UK has repeatedly promised unilaterally to put no hard border in Northern Ireland, but the EU has refused to do the same. However, the GFA makes it incumbent upon the UK to ensure there is no hard border even if it’s the EU putting it here, not us). So the GFA makes us “responsible” for an EU border.
Now, the politics of Ireland are extremely complex, and I do not wish to go to deep into them here, but to note that when Tony Blair signed up for this in 1999 this should have been seen as a very major concession with implications for all future British foreign policy in perpetuity. Essentially, it committed the UK never having a hard border in any part unless it abandoned Northern Ireland. (Since to have a hard border around part of the UK and not another would be clearly a nonsense). That’s an enormously big deal, if you consider that we have no idea what the geopolitical ramifications of that over the next 50 to 100 years might be.
An agreement which legally obliges us to not defend a border indefinitely sounds, really very much like the sort of agreement clause that a defeated party would sign up to – rather than the sort of agreement one might have from a mutually agreed peace.
A referendum was, in fact, held amongst the people of Northern Ireland and Eire. It’s notable that the south voted markedly more in favour than the north. (94% vs 71%). Given it was Northern Ireland that bore the brunt of violence during the troubles, what does tell us about the nature of the treaty? However, no referendum was held in the mainland UK. Yet this clearly, as we now see, has profound implications for the constitution of the UK.
However, I suspect that Tony Blair was extremely keen to be the man who brought peace to Ireland. For good reasons? possibly. Possibly also out of arrogance? I strongly suspect so.
A final point here is to note just how cynical the EU’s exploitation of the Northern Ireland question is in the negotiations. We know what the subtext is here: If there’s a hard border, the GFA falls, if the GFA falls, there might be guns and bombs and bullets flying in Ireland again. That’s the real fear here. That’s the rarely openly mentioned reason why the Ireland question is “difficult”. However, the failure for reasons of sensitivity to state that explicitly mean we fail to really get the full force of the EU’s negotiation position one Irish border question: The EU are using the threat of violence via a proxy army to apply political leverage. Men in balaclavas with bombs are, ultimately, the muscle behind the EU’s negotiating position in this question. That’s despicable. That’s also an insight into the way the EU really thinks and works in my view.
2008 – Lisbon Treaty
The Lisbon treaty started out life as the “EU constitution”. This was put to several nations of the EU in referendums, and was largely rejected by the people. Not so in the UK. With cosmetic changes, it re-appeared as “The Lisbon Treaty”, now apparently, no longer needing referendum approval and was approved without the explicit consent of the British people. And thus was passed into UK law by a Labour government. In 2009 David Cameron recognised this as a handing away of power, yet once he had power in 2010, and taken a good dose of “TPP” along the way, he never actually tried to revoke the power given away at Lisbon.
2015 – The Manifesto Pledge For A Referendum
Here is a clear example of TPP at work. David Cameron never wanted an In-Out EU referendum as we can see here in 2012 Yet, in the manifesto for the 2015 General Election he pledged one. All the polling suggested that UKIP were a major risk to the Tories holding onto power.
By offering an In/Out vote on the European Union, Cameron split the UKIP vote. (even so UKIP polled 3.8 million votes). Cameron’s aim was to achieve enough seats to re-enter a coalition government with the Lib Dems, an arrangement which had worked really rather well for the Tories for the previous 5 years, as it allowed Cameron to silence the right wing of his party, on the grounds he needed to keep his Lib Dem colleagues happy.
There is little doubt in my mind, that the referendum manifesto pledge was supposed to skim off enough potential UKIP votes to keep the Tories in a coalition with the Lib Dems, and then would have been dumped in the subsequent coalition agreement. It also allowed him to appear “tough on Europe” to his party right-wing.
I think Cameron saw the incredible power of the coalition agreement that he and Nick Clegg came up with in 2010. Effectively, the leaders of the two parties could go into a room the day after an election, tear up their manifestos they had just been elected on, swig down a big dose of TPP, and then walk out with a new agreement to do whatever they wanted. and make their parties and the electorate take it. This happened by accident in 2010, but I believe it was entirely the plan in 2015. Dishonest? Absolutely – it meant making manifesto pledges with no intention of keeping them. Arrogant? Clearly – it allowed for near total control of policy. Cowardly? Again – clearly. Rather than actually telling the electorate what you planned to do, you hide it from them, for fear they might reject you.
This time it backfired – the election result ended up being a small conservative majority, and suddenly Cameron was left with a manifesto pledge he previously had no intention of keeping.
2016 – The Referendum Campaign
Cameron’s referendum campaign was classic Toxic Political Poison.
Dishonesty in bucketloads. The ludicrous project fear claims. Over and again, a reliance on argument from authority – arrogance.
As for cowardly? There were two distinctly cowardly elements in my view. First, having failed to achieve a meaningful concession from the EU, it was, in my view, Cameron’s duty to come back and lead the campaign to leave. If you call a referendum, if you stir hornets nest, you have a duty, in my view to support the “change” position and lead that forward. Or, at the very least, he should have stepped aside ahead of the referendum for someone who was willing to lead a Leave Campaign to take the helm.
Otherwise, what you end up doing is abusing the fact that you happen to hold the reins of power to disadvantage the other side in the referendum. Cameron repeatedly argued that “voting leave was a step in the dark”. Well, who’s fault was that? Clearly no one not actually holding the reins of power could really put in place any meaningful “leave” plan, so this was an abuse of power to advantage the “remain” side in the referendum.
Which is problematic, because remember it was supposed to be Cameron who wanted the referendum. Surely, if he were sincere and decent and honest, he would have wanted to do all he could to ensure a level playing field in the referendum he himself called?
The fact is, having called the referendum, he then tried as hard as possible to pull the strings of power to unfairly advantage the “remain” camp, including attempting to stop Purdah – which failed, and using millions of pounds of government money, outside of the conventional campaign spending limits, to send a leaflet to every household in the country.
Again, this seems both arrogant and cowardly.
And if you disagree with me on the last point, I doubt there is anyone who disagrees with my second point, which is this: Cameron’s resignation the day after the referendum was surely one of the most cowardly things ever seen in politics? To lead the country off a cliff entirely of his own making and walk away was truly shocking.
2016 – Theresa May’s accession
It might have made sense were it to allow a brexiteer to take the helm, but instead it was to allow the bland and ineffectual Theresa May to take the helm, hardly anyone’s idea of an inspiring leader anyway, but certainly not when she herself had backed remain.
Let us remind ourselves that she got the post by virtue of every other candidate pulling out. I’m fairly confident, that had a genuine leadership contest gone ahead and been put to the grass roots members, a Brexiteer would have taken the helm, but the party inner guard were not about to let that happen. Spinelessness at the critical moment from those who should have stepped up, and deviousness meant May took the PM role unopposed.
The arrogance for her to stand, the dishonesty of claiming she somehow could legitimately be the flag-bearer of brexit while having not a single positive word to say about it, and the cowardice of others in the Tory party to stop it led to her premiership.
I think it’s now abundantly clear that a leader who’s only approach to brexit has been some vague idea of limiting immigration while trying to change as little as possible about anything else was never going to come back from Brussels with a half-decent deal.
2017 – General Election
The election itself shoud have been unnecessary. in retrospect, seeing the deal that Theresa May now has, it becomes clear why she felt she needed to reshuffle her deck by calling an election – She needed to a house stacked much fuller with “Maybots” who would vote through her awful deal, because although had a majority, she would never see off the Brexit rebels.
Nevertheless, the election was called, and this time it was Jeremy Corbyn who was the chief culprit where The Toxic Political Poison was concerned. The Labour Party ran on an explicitly “Pro-Brexit” manifesto, yet, nearly every remainer I know voted for them.
Somehow, Corbyn’s labour managed to sublimate to the British people that they were actually the “remainer” party – even though the manifesto said otherwise. This was so spectacularly duplicitous. Much like Corbyn’s own role in the 2016 referendum. A life long euroskeptic, at the one time it really mattered, he bottled backing “leave” in order to maintain credibility in his party. This was clearly dishonest, and clearly cowardly.
It left him, following the leave result, powerless to influence at the precise moment, had he backed the Leave campaign, he could have been ready to conquer all before him.
2018 – Where we are now
The sum total of all of this is as follows:
Over decades, politicians have backed us into a corner with Europe, that, it seems increasingly clear we can’t get out of.
Or at least, we won’t get out of it without being bold, decisive and brave. Which amounts to the same thing, because the number of MPs who have the qualities it would take are so few and far between, there isn’t enough to make a cabinet.
Some people think that “if only” we had, perhaps a Jacob Rees-Mogg at the helm, he could get the job done. While I admire much about JRM, I think this fails to realise that were JRM in number 10 he would be stabbed in the back so fast, and so repeatedly by so many remain-backing MPs I doubt, at this point it would make much difference.
The Trilemma we are faced with is problematic because it really doesn’t seem that any option allows for politicians to resort to their favourite three virtues of dishonesty, arrogance and cowardice.
- We could leave on no deal – I just cannot see any politician who would be brave enough to do this. Cowardice is such a strong feature of British politicians, and there would be significant harms from no-deal, and no politician is going to be brave enough to say “This is going to hurt – but it’s the right thing to do..so let’s do it”
- We could leave on May’s deal – This deal locks us into a potentially perpetual customs union which we can only escape with the EU’s say so. This seems such an obvious problem, that I just can’t see how it can get over the line in the commons, although it does kick the can two years down the road, which may be just cowardly enough for it to have some merit for some MPs.
- We could remain in the EU – This is, of course, the preferred option of Theresa May and most other politicians and always has been. The problem is that it would require enormous bravery for anyone to actually stand up and announce they were simply turning the ship around. I would dislike intensely any politician that did this, but I would at least, admire their bravery if they did so.
It does seem to me another referendum is an escape from this. A second referendum allows the politicians to continue to feed on their diet of Toxic Political Poison.
If remain were to win a second referendum – every single politician would breath a sigh of relief. They would have been let off the hook .All those weak decisions they took, which gave away power to Europe to such a frightening degree could be safely buried again. They will be quiet and sheepish initially, but after a while, they could even start to say things like “Of course, we could have left the EU if we wanted to! But the people decided not to! We had a referendum! it was the people’s vote!”
And if leave did win again, but supposing it was a vote for “No deal”, any catastrophic disaster could simply be blamed on the people. The fact that weak, spineless politicians failed to negotiated a good deal, because of decades of other weak spineless politicians weakening our negotiating position could simply be ignored.
This, in conclusion is what we are now faced with. The dead end that decades of non-leadership eventually leads to. The point where putting off the difficult decision until tomorrow can no longer work – “tomorrow” has arrived. it’s not easy to see how there is any kind of easy way out from this point.
If Maastricht and Lison had been put to referendums, or better still ,rejected in their current forms, we would not be where we are today. Weak and arrogant leaders meant they were not, and now we are paying the price.
So what seems the likely way forward from here?
At this point I am skeptical of the ability of May’s deal to get through parliament, but I rather suspect there are many politicians who just so want this brexit thing to be over that they will simply back it in any case, so I wouldn’t completely rule it out.
If the deal passes then we exit on the May-deal. We are then locked into an agreement which we can only exit with the EU’s permission. This really does give them every advantage in the future trade deal. It is inconceivable to me that we could get anything like a good deal from the starting point of being locked into a terrible transition deal which we can only escape with the EU’s permission.
There would of course, be another exit from it: We could simply make an article 49 application to rejoin the EU. Given we would be held in in total regulatory alignment this would be extremely easy to bring about. We would probably have to take the Euro, and possibly Schengen. and lose our rebate, but in return we would “Gain” MEPs and a say in the running of the EU! I strongly suspect this is the long term game plan here.
If the deal fails to pass and we are suddenly staring no-deal in the face, a lot will depend on whether the brexiteers have already played the leadership-contest joker at that point.
If they haven’t they will – and we might get a No-deal Brexit prime minister. A Churchill to come along after the May-Chamberlain.
If we have a leadership contest before the vote, I suspect May will win it, or possibly she could even win a leadership contest after a failed vote. – in either of these circumstances, I’d expect a hastily arranged “people’s vote” between No-deal and remain, which will stacked up in every way conceivably possible to ensure a remain win.