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Truth, lies and the implausible other dimension of the post-fact Brexiteers


Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Reuters

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Reuters


Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Reuters

The British government secured House of Commons support for its Article 50 notification bill, subsequently approved by the Lords and given the royal assent, on Monday last. On the same day, the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called for a fresh referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

It looks like a second referendum will have to be conceded (the first failed on a 55/45 vote in September 2014) since the UK government's plans for a hard Brexit change the calculus for Scotland. Whenever the vote is taken, the separatists will argue that the decisions to leave both single market and customs union, not on the ballot paper when 62pc of Scots voted to stay in the European Union last June, have increased the costs for Scotland of staying in the United Kingdom. There is already a row about the timing, with Theresa May seeking to delay the vote until British exit has been accomplished, while Nicola Sturgeon wants an earlier poll.

Irish sympathy for Scottish independence is another case of 'be careful what you wish for'. An independent Scotland readmitted to the EU would be a direct competitor for inward investment, while the UK government will be less willing to battle for an open border in Ireland since it would set a precedent, enhancing separatist arguments in Scotland.

But the most alarming feature of last week was the continuing avalanche of utterly misplaced optimism from prominent Tories about Britain's prospects outside the EU. Last Monday was Commonwealth Day, marked with a service at Westminster Abbey and dangerously rosy professions of faith that lost trade in Europe can be replaced through better deals with Britain's former colonies. This is pie in the sky. The Commonwealth ceased to be a functioning trade bloc for Britain 70 years ago and nowadays absorbs less than 10pc of Britain's exports. The Commonwealth as an alternative to Europe was rejected by Treasury analysts in the 1960s during Britain's initial attempts to join the Common Market.

Hugo Young, in his 1998 history (This Blessed Plot) of Britain's early relations with the post-war European project, dismissed what he called the 'blinding emptiness' of the Commonwealth argument. He wrote: "Insofar as the Commonwealth was seen, in any scenario, as an alternative basis for Britain's economic future, this vision was pitifully false. The trade figures indicated it then, the subsequent history proved it afterwards. One may accord a degree of sympathy to the errors of politicians at any given time, but less so when the source of the error is a reluctance, through sentiment or pain or misbegotten pressure or sheer intellectual feebleness, to acknowledge the harshness of facts that palpably will not change: facts, moreover, that were well documented by Whitehall departments which had shed their own illusions before 1961." It is disheartening to have to listen, 20 years after Young's verdict, to nostalgic waffle about Commonwealth trade opportunities.

The BBC2 documentary Brexit: Britain's Biggest Deal contained some further examples of intellectual feebleness. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed his customary sunny optimism, unsupported by practical arguments of any kind, about British trade prospects post-Brexit. But the scariest contribution came from Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader and cabinet minister until last year, now a voluble backbench Brexiteer. He believes that the EU will be motivated to offer Britain a good free trade deal, despite the decision to quit the single market. There are, he asserted, one million car workers in Bavaria alone dependent on exports to the UK whose jobs are on the line. Accordingly the German government will, in its own interest, offer generous trade terms to Britain the better to defend this enormous number of jobs.

There is indeed a sizeable car industry in Bavaria, according to the websites of the Bavarian government and the industry association. The automotive sector employs 197,000 Bavarians in total. The German volume producers (Volkswagen and Opel) have their biggest operations elsewhere but BMW and MAN, the commercial vehicle builder, are Munich-based. About one in eight of the vehicles built in Germany are sold in the UK, so roughly 25,000 Bavarian jobs would be on the line if trade in vehicles between Britain and Germany ceased altogether. There would be job losses in Britain too, since Britain also has a sizeable export trade. This was not mentioned by Duncan Smith. Of course, trade would not cease entirely and the default tariff of 9.8pc would not deter all BMW enthusiasts. Bavarian companies would also try to divert production to markets other than Britain. So there could well be some Bavarian job losses, perhaps 10,000 or 15,000. But not a round million, five times the current employment level.

My point is not that Iain Duncan Smith is a fool. The point is that he is happy to offer sweeping reassurances about the consequences of a hard Brexit without the slightest genuflection to the readily available facts. Nor is he being deliberately deceitful, knowing full well that his statements are hugely at variance with reality. It would appear he neither knows nor cares: reality does not impinge, and he does not know because he does not care.

In 1986, the Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, published a much-cited essay entitled On Bullshit. Lamenting vaporous waffle in modern political discourse, Frankfurt sought to define terms. His key point is that bullshit is an identifiable phenomenon to be distinguished from truth or deliberate falsehood. To the bullshitter, the truth or falsity of a statement does not need to be checked, since it is immaterial. What matters is the impression created in the minds of the audience, who may be poorly equipped with factual information or in search of empathy or confirmation of hunches. In this nomenclature, Iain Duncan Smith is a bullshitter rather than a liar.

There has been conscious lying too in the Brexit debate, but the journalistic obsession with fact-checking is not enough. Some of the participants are operating in the Trumpian post-fact dimension and it is the duty of the BBC and the serious media to identify the bullshitters, or simply to make an editorial decision to deny them voice on the grounds of implausibility. The sports programmes would not retain a contributor who insisted that Andorra are a serious fancy for the next World Cup. If Iain Duncan Smith cannot be bothered to check readily available information, what kind of editorial policy inflicts this nonsense on the public?

There are some grown-ups in the Conservative party. Another former party leader, William Hague, was happy to acknowledge on the same BBC programme that the Brexit negotiations will be a nightmare, long, complex and contentious. Hague has retired to the Lords while the Brexiteer ministers continue to wing it, exuding breezy nonchalance.

EU politicians, conscious that the post-war European settlement is under threat, must be feeling mounting irritation with the lack of seriousness in London.

Sunday Independent