I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the subject of the EU came up during the meetings between Boris Johnson and Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy. How could Johnson, master of bullshit, have possibly handled the irony of the situation? He, the principal culprit in what is being increasingly recognised as the self-harm of Brexit; and Zelenskiy, desperate to join the EU that the UK, in its unforgivable folly, has left.
Now, I use the word bullshit – not normally one that appears in this column – advisedly. I have read a short book by a renowned American moral philosopher, Harry G Frankfurt, entitled On Bullshit. Frankfurt examines the distinction between humbug – “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying” – and outright lying; he sees his third category, bullshit, as “a lack of connection to a concern with truth”. It is “this indifference to how things really are” that he regards as “the essence of bullshit”.
This seems to capture Johnson – bullshitter extraordinaire – and the entire Brexit tribe. They displayed a distinct lack of connection to a concern with the truth during the referendum; and they very definitely affect indifference to how things really are as the Brexit chickens come home to roost.
The deleterious impact of Brexit on the UK’s output, investment, trade and standard of living is becoming more and more obvious. The Resolution Foundation finds that real incomes per head are some £470 lower than they would have been if we had remained.
But that is not all: Lord Heseltine put the frustrations directly attributable to Brexit neatly in a recent article in the Financial Times: “Queues are back. During the last war they reflected the dire threat we faced, but at least there was a common enemy … This time Brexit has forced a million Europeans to go home. There are queues to see doctors, queues at A&E departments, queues at airports, queues at passport offices. Farmers turn their crops unharvested back into the soil.”
Frankfurt’s “indifference to how things are” has been a major factor in the Brexit debacle. After nearly half a century of being absorbed within the EU’s customs union, and 30 years in the single market, we had in effect become a branch of the European economy. The vehicle industry, aircraft production, even the output of bicycles, was not a British operation, but a European one in which British companies took part. Workers moved between the UK and, often, eastern Europe – countries which we had encouraged to join the EU – in much the same way as their counterparts in the US. In some ways we were becoming, with obvious differences, part of what that great Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan hoped would be the United States of Europe.
So what, in that notorious question of Lenin’s that has become a cliche, is to be done?
Quite apart from the day-to-day UK problems of incipient recession, roaring (by modern standards) inflation, and a deterioration in our overseas terms of trade aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we face the additional problem that elements of the foreign exchange markets have begun to view sterling as a lost cause. This is the consequence of the impact of Brexit on an economy already weakened by productivity problems and a decade of counterproductive austerity.
The tragedy is that neither of our two main political parties seems up to it. They are both in denial about Brexit. Even if the egregious Johnson finally gets his come-uppance, he has packed his cabinet with a collection of time-servers who remind one of what Bismarck said to the Prussian monarch in 1859: “Your Royal Highness has not a single statesmanlike intellect in the whole ministry, nothing but mediocrities and limited brains.”
As for the Labour leader and once formidable supporter of Remain, Keir Starmer, how can he say with a straight face: “There is no case for rejoining”? Apparently Starmer does not wish to offend the third of Labour supporters who voted Leave – just the two-thirds who didn’t!
Well, I hope that Starmer and those Tories for whom “rejoin” is the love that dare not speak its name look out for the Federal Trust’s forthcoming project, Brexit Can Be Undone. As Prof Andrew Blick of King’s College London says in an article connected with the project: “Rejoining is the only satisfactory means of addressing the manifest problems caused by Brexit.”
Of course, as a reader pointed out in the letters page after my last column, the EU would not contemplate embarking on rejoining negotiations with an international lawbreaker. This is one of the many reasons why the Tories need to summon up the guts to disavow Johnson and all his works.