For an exercise in popular sovereignty, which was meant to take decisions away from the hated ‘elite’, the Brexit referendum has, inevitably, produced Britain’s greatest outbreak of political lying. Yesterday’s liars look pale and wan in comparison with the latest models. It is as if the long-awaited singularity has occurred. But rather than advances in technology creating a new species of artificial superintelligence , the advance of plebiscitary politics has created a new species of artificial superliar.
The liars of the past were often furtive figures. Like the man who has staggered home at 3 a.m. and tried to explain away the beer on his breath and lipstick on his collar, you did not know whether to shout at them or laugh at them for insulting your intelligence. There is nothing sneaky about the superliars. They do not try to hide the fact that they are lying. These are open liars, self-confessed liars, out-loud-and-proud liars, who demand and expect praise for lying in the name of ‘the people’.
When they were not being furtive, the liars of the past were often petty. They would lie about little things. The politician pretending the increase in spending was an increase in real terms rather than cash terms. The worker assuring his boss he had been working on a project he had not even begun. The superliars scorn such minor mendacity. They lie about the great issues of our age; about policies with predictable and unforeseen consequences that may hurt us for decades
The greatest liar is our prime minister, as constitutional precedence dictates. Theresa May opposed taking Britain out of the EU for the good reasons that Brexit will destroy jobs, cut the tax base and leave us isolated.
‘I think the economic arguments are clear,’ she told Goldman Sachs during the referendum campaign. ‘I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think, as I was saying to you a little earlier, that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe.’
Now she is loudly and proudly following a policy she does not believe in, and following the most extreme version of that policy anyone can imagine.
Far from being denounced as a cynic, and May provides the perfect picture of political cynicism in action, the superliar is applauded. The right and increasingly alt- and, indeed, far-right wing press applaud her, naturally, for she is doing their bidding. Centrist journalists applaud her too, because they have a bias that is rarely recognised: a bias towards power. This is not the same as power worship, and has nothing in common with the partisan adoration a propagandist shows for his masters and mistresses. It is just how journalists, civil servants and everyone who wants to influence government behaves when there is no opposition or prospect of an opposition that might win for as far ahead as anyone can see. What is the point of criticising the government when it can win a landslide any day it chooses to call an election? An embattled prime minister with an opposition ready for power faces scrutiny. The ruler of a de facto one-party state is indulged.
For all the slack polite society cuts her, May meets my two criteria for a superliar.
- There is nothing furtive about her. She voted to keep Britain in the EU, and is now out, loud and proud in her determination to take us out of the EU. She doesn’t apologise or explain her U-turn, but proudly boasts she is acting against her better instincts in the name of ‘the people’.
- Removing us not just from the EU but from the single market and the customs union as well is anything but trivial. It will have vast consequences, as no less an authority than Mrs May warned. (See above.)
It is as if Tony Blair had taken us into war with Saddam Hussein while believing the best course was keeping him in power, or Winston Churchill had fought World War II while all the time thinking that the appeasers were right.
We are in an incredible position. All the more incredible because Mrs May is not alone, but a perfidious primus inter pares. Her Chancellor wants Britain to stay in the EU, but voted for Britain to leave the EU. A majority of the MPs who voted alongside him to enact Article 50 also want Britain to stay in the EU, as does a majority of peers who are about to give approval for Britain to leave the EU. I argued at the time of the referendum campaign that the current Foreign Secretary was no different. He, I believed, thought Britain should stay in the EU and was supporting the leave campaign only because it was the smart move to advance his career. I accept I may have been wrong. Boris Johnson may not be a lying opportunist but an authentic idiot. Even if he is, it does not mean that the men and women who advocated Brexit and are now implementing Brexit are not caught up in lies of their own.
You cannot generalise about why 17 million people voted to leave. But no one but a fool pretends that concerns about immigration did not push leave over the line. Theresa May has confirmed as much by putting controlling immigration above the nation’s prosperity. For all the apparent clarity on this point, David Davis, a rare British politician, who is not only taking Britain out of the EU but actually believes it is right to take Britain out of the EU, told east Europeans that Britain would not slam the doors on them. He must have been telling the truth, because large numbers of businesses could not cope without migrant labour. His one difficulty is that neither he nor his colleagues in Vote Leave made this honest admission during the referendum campaign. The attacks on him from Aaron Banks and Iain Duncan Smith are a taste of a future when the Right and far Right will be able to claim that ‘the People’ have been stabbed in the back as Brexit brings no obvious diminution of the number of foreigners in Britain.
Then there were all the promises on the economy. What happens if they turn out to be so much nonsense? I think they will. I think setting Britain on a vast and vastly complicated course is bound to lead to suffering. I know for a fact that there has been no preparation for hardship. It is not just that Gove, Johnson and Farage sold 52 per cent of the electorate a fairy story during the Brexit campaign. The remainer-turned–leaver Theresa May continues to sell it now.
Today’s politicians are the opposite of Churchillian leaders. They do not warn of blood, sweat toil and tears ahead. Instead they tell the old Cosmopolitan lie that we can have it all. What if we can’t? For we never can. At the moment no thinker is more unfashionable than Edmund Burke. The notion that MPs must follow their consciences and speak their minds is dismissed by respectable opinion on right, left and centre. Everyone from Theresa May down must suppress their doubts, blot out intelligent thought, and vote for a policy they believe to be against the national interest, all so they can be the delegates rather than the representatives of ‘the people’.
I do not believe this complicity with political mendacity can last. What will ‘the people’ say when they find that all it can have is minimal restrictions on immigration, a declining economy and the most godawful mess? They might blame themselves. But my guess is that they will turn Burkean and turn to the superliars now in power and say ‘you lied to us’.