As the region-by-region results of the EU referendum rolled in on the morning of 24 June 2016, political dividing lines suddenly tore through the fabric of British communities in an unexpectedly raw and real sense. Yet, the tone set by the new post-referendum politics would be far more adverse than the schism between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’. The deeper ensuing consequences of Brexit for citizens and, crucially, for democracy itself, are made poignantly clear in Byline TV’s documentary Betrayed: The Truth About Brexit, directed by Caolan Robertson.
It was not the vote to leave the European Union (EU) alone that constituted a radical watershed in the conduct of British democracy. The populism underlying the Brexit campaign had propelled both our politics and our national discourse headlong into a chaotic new era of post-truth.
The implications of this shift have continued to take root and extend into every aspect of national political discourse, resulting in a confected culture war and the spreading of deliberately divisive, and often false, rhetoric. The referendum, no doubt, marked the beginning of this, and as the documentary reveals, it is ordinary citizens who stand to lose the most as Brexit post-truth continues to infect the body politic.
Empty Brexit promises and the betrayal of trust
In the space of just over an hour, Dr Mike Galsworthy takes the audience on a journey that encompasses a broad sweep of the catastrophic and complex consequences of Brexit. His exploration of the acute human impact of Brexit renders the piece all the more powerful. If there is one unifying pattern in accounts of the devastation meted out by the final Brexit deal – from Grimsby to Port Talbot, and across farming communities – it is the abject abandonment of trust in the democratic process to improve lives. This same distrust has materialised as a direct consequence of the lies sold to the electorate.
In the words of Dami Olatuyi, a volunteer for the Vote Leave campaign:
“The thing about Brexit is you got to say whatever you wanted because it was about the future … when you look closer at the details it’s not really true … using the NHS as a campaign slogan was very dishonest and that’s part of the reason that the country is [now] where it is.”
Olatuyi realised quite soon after the referendum that certain ethical boundaries had been breached in terms of the dishonest headlines and promises used by the leave campaign. This was on top of the military-grade weaponisation of disinformation on social media by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and the constant drip feed of untruths whispered into the ears of millions by the right-wing press. The cumulative corrosive effect is made clear in the documentary by the testimony of Grimsby fisherman James Bolton:
“We were promised things from the government and they never stuck to their end of the deal … Many of my friends, fellow fishermen, voted to leave and they all feel the same. Because you’ve been let down once, you can’t trust them.”
How Brexit betrayed fishing communities
Up to 70% of voters in Grimsby supported Brexit because they believed it would usher in a return to the days when the docks effectively constituted a small town, complete with cafes, shops and banks. The trade was so lucrative, crews returning to land their catch would be known as ‘three-day millionaires’. A return to past prosperity is what politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage appeared to promise, with both taking advantage of photo opportunities to rally support at the daily fish market.
Yet when the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement was finally delivered, the betrayal became strikingly evident. Barry Deas of the National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations declared the industry had been “sacrificed”, and Martin Boyers, CEO of Grimsby Fish Market described it as “… just rhetoric and broken promises”. The deal that Johnson and David Frost had negotiated had essentially made it much harder for British fisheries to sell into their largest market – the current accumulated trade deficit for the industry amounts to £1.7bn.
The post-Brexit stifling of the fisheries is starkly reiterated by Brixham fish merchant Ian Perkes, who supplies markets in Europe via Boulogne:
“They will destroy us eventually … it’s another £250,000 in costs per annum, purely since Brexit, purely for the customs [declarations], £5,000 a week – when Boris had told us you’ll be needing more staff because you’re going to be so busy. He was right. We have had to take on extra staff, but not to pack the fish – to do the admin.
“We were lied to. I think me and many others were. Thousands, if not millions, were brainwashed into believing we were going into a better world.”
Brexit as a betrayal of ordinary citizens
The documentary’s focus on the fishing industry may seem granular but it is proportionate to the whole notion of Brexit as a betrayal of ordinary citizens. Fishing in many ways was the emotive totem used by Farage, and others such as Michael Gove, to galvanise a national fervour to leave the EU. Promises to ‘take back our waters’, with Farage himself leading a flotilla of fishing boats up the River Thames, complemented the intentionally mesmeric ‘take back control’ mantra.
The hastened floundering of the industry and the thousands of lives dependent on its flourishing is perhaps the most egregious consequence of the populist slogans and untruths used to extort the electorate. The experience of Bolton, Perkes, and many others underlines the insidious magnetism and danger of such post-truth rhetoric.
The ultimate irony is finally revealed when it is shown that the building housing Grimsby Fish Market, the only one still standing and operating amongst the dereliction of Grimsby Port, was directly financed by £605,000 of EU funding.
The lack of structural funding post-Brexit is glaring in Port Talbot where the locals are yet to see a substantial replacement of EU investment, despite levelling-up promises. Buffeted by deindustrialisation and globalisation, South Wales qualified for the highest level of EU structural and regeneration funding. Local MP Stephen Kinnock laments the shortfall:
“It’s clear that Neath Port Talbot should be a target for the government’s so-called levelling-up strategy. But the reality is there’s been a £3bn cut in real terms to the grant that the UK government gives to the Welsh government since 2010.
“Whilst also failing to have a strategy for growth, you’ve got the perfect storm.”
Brexit and the betrayal of farming communities
Away from the windswept coasts and industrial zones, the betrayal is also keenly felt across the agricultural heartlands of the shires. Brexit, the government insisted, was an opportunity to give farmers “for the first time in 50 years [the] chance to do things differently”. Many in agricultural communities were persuaded by this, with an estimated 58% of farmers voting to leave.
The industry has since been plunged into uncertainty. Agricultural producers have lost their unfettered access to their largest market, on top of the reduction in subsidies after the loss of common agricultural policy funding. Now they face potentially fierce competition from Australia and New Zealand whose industrial-scale farmers have been given barely restricted access to the UK market.
Liz Webster of Save British Farming describes a situation where the government is neglecting the vital necessity of UK food security at a time of impending crisis:
“We already had access to Australia and New Zealand – we had full access to their markets and all we’ve done is open up Britain to them. They are huge countries and they farm in a very different way to us, with lower standards, and it just means that they can send quantities over here which can undercut us and put us out of business – then once we’re out of business, that’s it.
“We rely on Europe to feed us. They provide most of the food that we eat now and that’s increasing every day. This winter, greenhouses are not going to run. A lot of chicken sheds are not going to run because they can’t afford the energy costs, and that means more food will have to be imported.
“The government haven’t done anything to support the food system here and one has to ask why? Coming out of Europe and then ending our food production here at the same time is the most irresponsible thing a government can do, in my view. I think we’re going to see some real problems with food. We already have 11,000 people who were hospitalised with malnutrition last year. It’s just unthinkable in a wealthy country.”
The impact of ending free movement
Such issues have also been vastly compounded by ending of free movement, as fresh produce supplier David Catt observes:
“With the Brexit campaign gaining strength and the referendum happening a lot of Europeans felt unwelcome here and moved back. That created an initial labour vacuum that still hasn’t recovered.”
In a situation described by NFU president, Tom Bradshaw, as “nothing short of a travesty”, up to £60mn worth of food has already been wasted due to the absence of EU staff in the horticultural industries.
A betrayed sense of belonging: the human impact of Brexit
The unique allure of Betrayed: The Big Brexit Lie is that both Byline TV and Dr Galsworthy have deliberately deviated from covering the immediate economic and political fallout of Brexit and decided to tell the stories of those most deeply and personally affected. The human stories that, for whatever reason, have become a scarce commodity in mainstream broadcast and printed media. The plight of EU citizens who had made their homes, and started families, in the UK, likewise, has been afforded next to no coverage, yet theirs is a tale where the concept of betrayal meets the most poignancy.
Cosi Doerfel, an EU citizen from Germany who has made Liverpool her home for decades, was left in hurt disbelief at the xenophobic rhetoric bandied about by the tabloid press. The hollow unfulfilled promises ‘that there will be no change’ made by the leave campaign have rendered her, and countless others, profoundly unsettled and, moreover, has uprooted that most essential human need for a sense of belonging. For Cosi, and many others, Brexit has inflicted deep psychological and emotional trauma.
“I thought, well I’ve lived here for 28 years why would it affect me? And also the leave campaign had promised on the 1st of June 2016 that it would not affect me. But it did.
“So there’s been very little understanding of that, and very little empathy actually for that. People have this idea ‘oh you’re married to a Brit, you’ll be fine’; well, I’m not fine. I wasn’t fine then. I’m disgusted with how I’ve been treated, I think it’s absolutely inhumane. It’s despicable that people should vote to treat people like this.
“There was one meme put together of lots and lots and lots of Daily Mail headlines and they were all very vicious about foreigners and migrants and EU citizens. I remember one day when they had the big [Sun] headline of ‘EU [dirty] rats’. So now I’m getting compared to a rat? When was the last time somebody was compared to a rat on the basis of their ethnicity?”
The deeper wound of post-truth politics
Post-truth is defined by Bruce McComiskey as signifying “a state in which language lacks any reference to facts, truths, and realities. In a post-truth communication landscape, people (especially politicians) say whatever might work in a given situation, whatever might generate the desired result, without any regard to the truth value or facticity of statements”.
The impact of Brexit on our politics and our economic and personal lives has been seismic, and we are still yet to witness anywhere near the full consequences of our decision as a nation. It has also wreaked something else upon us, arguably more destructive to the fabric of our culture and society. It has radically destabilised our notions of objective truth.
The recent Conservative Party conference saw the party adopting undiluted populism and unapologetic post-truth. For example, it saw Mark Harper, secretary of state for transport, proposing a ban on ‘restrictions on movement’ supposedly to be imposed by local councils, a conspiracy theory emanating from some of the murkier far-right backwaters on the internet.
Combined with a litany of other falsehoods, we are also witnessing an upsurge in false statements relating to the European Court of Human Rights in some Conservative MPs’ eagerness to abandon the human rights framework. Brexit, and the leave campaign that preceded it, embedded within our politics the ability of those without ethical or moral scruples to mislead with near-absolute impunity. The audacious nonsense spouted at the conference was a direct outgrowth of this.
Betrayed: The Truth About Brexit
Democracy requires that the electorate have access to the most truthful and accurate information available to them. This is an essential prerequisite for being able to inform decision-making, shape policy and promote healthy discourse. It is also an essential prerequisite for creating and living our best lives. It might be convincingly argued that the deepest betrayal inflicted on this nation by Brexit is that the entire concept of truth as a deep value underpinning our society has been left ruthlessly vandalised.
In becoming unmoored from Europe, the UK has become unmoored from itself. And as Betrayed: The Truth About Brexit lucidly demonstrates, it is those who were misled and who stand innocently on the sidelines who are the tragic real-world casualties of the lies told for the sake of cheap political expediency.
As campaigner Gina Miller concludes:
“People don’t know what to trust anymore, and that’s a really difficult place for us to be in. If people are not going to trust anything, they’re just going to switch off.
“Democracy doesn’t work if we don’t have the demos engaged in what’s going on.”