In a 1940 essay, George Orwell made a number of what I think were some astute observations about the qualities of the English ruling class. He saw them as patriotic but “impenetrably stupid”.
“What is to be expected of them is not treachery or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing.”George Orwell, 1940: The Lion and the Unicorn
Things haven’t changed very much. Remember this when reading social media claims that Brexit is the result of some vast conspiracy of liars. It wasn’t. That would imply Brexit occasionally had a controlling mind behind it and perhaps even a sketchy plan. It didn’t.
We never had any realistic objectives, only red lines, and in the end picked up the crumbs the EU were prepared to grant.
Brexit was built on arrogance and stupidity
The Brexit disaster wasn’t built on lies, but on arrogance and stupidity by men and women who didn’t know their own limitations, and still don’t. Most of us are at least occasionally racked with self doubt, but not Brexiters apparently.
It’s true that lies were told and continue to be told, but only to mask the sheer ignorance of those who led the campaign, many of whom are now in the cabinet.
Whole industries have suffered a bit of ‘unconscious sabotage’ or collateral damage as Brexit sends a wrecking ball through the economy, while many of its erstwhile supporters now launch legal actions against parts of it. I think we can conclude therefore, that the architects of Brexit were utterly clueless.
However, the penny may have started to drop. Dominic Cummings recently claimed Johnson recruited him in July 2019 to “sort out the huge Brexit nightmare”. Was that a Freudian slip by Cummings, or a verbatim quote from the prime minister? We may never know. Either way, it’s revealing.
A desperate rearguard action is now underway to delay the moment when it finally dawns that Brexit has been a terrible mistake. When that happens, a few men will deserve special note for the key roles they played in it, often going above and beyond mere ineptitude and incompetence.
Stupidity and lies: Boris Johnson
In a wonderful article by Patrick Freyne, a journalst on the Irish Times, (do read it) during Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign he described the man who is now PM as:
“An attention-seeking buffoon, the type of hesitating, self-deprecating Englishman who charms Americans and populates Richard Curtis films and who will not hesitate to burn the country down if his hands get cold.”Patrick Freyne, Irish Times, 13 June 2019
Clearly, Johnson’s hands must have got cold.
Behind that façade of bumbling incompetence lies … well, a bumbling incompetent. Our problem with Johnson is that he has so many character flaws, they can easily blind us to the fact that underneath it he is just an idiot, albeit one who can babble away in several languages.
When you strip away the more innocuous personality traits, the slovenliness and manic disorganisation, you start to get to more serious ones. A lack of empathy for others, and a predilection for infidelities and habitual lies. You then get down to his dishonesty and general moral turpitude.
None of this might matter if he was generally competent, but he isn’t.
There are so many examples of his stupidity I’m spoilt for choice, but I suggest his contribution on the Irish border is up there. On 3 October 2019 he stood before MPs in the House and said:
“We propose the potential creation of a regulatory zone on the island of Ireland covering all goods, including agrifood. For as long as it exists, the zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Given his primary objective is to diverge from that ‘regulatory zone’, what he was actually describing was a border in the Irish Sea, although it now appears he was the only one who didn’t realise it – and still doesn’t. As Sir Alan Duncan, former minister of state under Johnson at the Foreign Office, said recently, he (Johnson) “knew none of the details on Brexit.” I suspect he still doesn’t.
Let’s be honest, the prime minister is a congenital liar, head and shoulders above any politician we have ever had in the past. But on Brexit his chief flaw is not being estranged from the truth, it is the one which Orwell identified – stupidity.
Stupidity and lies: Dominic Cummings
Cummings, campaign director at Vote Leave, decided in a 2015 blog post to avoid having any plan for Brexit. His reasoning – if indeed that is the right word – went like this [emphasis in the original]:
“Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task. Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions.”
So, the nation embarked on a mission equivalent to “a set of projects that make the NASA moon shot look quite simple” according to David Davis, but, unlike NASA, without bothering to prepare a plan. Even if they had one 20,000 pages long, Cummings said, “more errors are likely.” Fortunately for mankind, Cummings never worked for the US Space agency.
Far better to wing it and hope. In for a penny, in for a pound as we used to say. The ‘errors’ instead of being on paper and cheap were then made very expensively in real time as we went along.
He admitted the general public were uninformed. Less than one percent had heard of the EEA [European Economic Area] he claimed and “few MPs know the difference between the EEA and EFTA [European Free Trade Association] or the intricacies of the WTO [World Trade Organization] rules”.
He doubted that voters “could be effectively educated about such things” before the referendum. It’s increasingly clear that it wasn’t just the voters who needed educating. Cummings himself hadn’t the foggiest.
Stupidity and lies: Matthew Elliot
In the stupidity stakes, Elliot is perhaps one of the few men to make a Toc H lamp (Google it) look like a super nova.
In 2015, as chief executive of Business for Britain, a pro-Brexit lobby group, he published a thousandpage document entitled Change or Go, for which he was later ordered by the Charity Commission to repay the £50,000 that he had raised to pay for it. It listed everything he thought unsatisfactory about the EU (clue: a lot) and suggested every conceivable option for leaving the bloc (Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, etc) – all that is except for the deal that we actually asked for.
Change or Go contains around half a million words, but ‘Irish’ and ‘border’ aren’t two that ever appear together. Nor does the “Good Friday Agreement.” Strange that. The issue, which has dogged Brexit from the start, and continues to do so as violence flares up once again, doesn’t rate a single mention. Not one of the eight members of the ‘editorial board’ gave it a thought, least of all Elliot.
Mr Elliot is clearly not material for superforecasting.
He later became chief executive of Vote Leave and is now employed as senior political adviser to Shore Capital (tip; sell!).
Stupidity and lies: Michael Gove
Michael Gove’s comment on live TV in 2016 – “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” – came from a man who was lord chancellor in a government that was spending about £85bn a year on education at the time. Although presumably it stopped short of producing any experts, we wouldn’t want money wasted on that would we?
This was both stupid and arrogant from a man once described as a “haunted-ventriloquist’s dummy”, an image once captured you can never quite forget. His message was: I am an amateur and know nothing about these highly complex issues, so vote for me and I’ll deliver. Have faith.
The man responsible for much of the later EU negotiations was true to his word. He relied on his own scant knowledge and the totally inept Lord Frost to conduct face-to-face talks with Brussels – to secure a disastrous trade deal skewed in the EU’s favour. Any more ‘victories’ like that and we’re finished as an advanced economy.
We got tariff and quota free trade in UK originating and qualifying goods, where the EU has a massive advantage, and little more. This is because we prioritised what we didn’t want (foreigners influencing British laws, aka sovereignty) over what we did (frictionless access to the single market).
Business and industry were barely consulted about the terms of the deal and even when they were, all warnings were ignored. Calls for an extended implementation period were repeatedly rejected. Some sectors demanded a three-year transition period. They were given a week.
The government is now unilaterally putting dates back as the problems Gove was warned about by experts become clear, even to him.
Finally, as the latest defence review reveals plans to increase our nuclear arsenal, I leave you to contemplate another extract from Patrick Freyne’s all-too-prescient 2019 article:
“[Johnson is] still so unreliable it looks like his own eyes don’t trust his face and are darting around seeking opportunities to escape. You just know that voting for him involves nuclear Armageddon at some point, but sure isn’t that what the Tory rank-and-file want?”
Troubling isn’t it?