When I went to work in a Dutch company at the start of my career, I was given a copy of Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. Remember the “dot.com bubble”? The delusions recounted in Mackay’s book are similar, only more colourful, ridiculous and harmful. My personal favourite is tulip mania, when speculation in tulip bulbs, the latest import to reach the seventeenth-century Netherlands from the exotic East and a must-have item for any serious person of fashion, reached fever pitch and caused a stock-market bubble. Mad as it seems now, people were willing to exchange suits of clothes, horses and carriages, even land for a single bulb of the rarest varieties of tulips. One day I will write a new chapter of that book: on Brexit.
If the rash of articles in the right-wing press blaming Remainers for the harsh Brexit about to be visited upon us is anything to go by, we are in the end-game now. What has been one of the longest and most comprehensive gaslighting operations in history anywhere in the world is about to collide with reality. Brexit is a scam of epic proportions. Truly world-beating. We’ve gone from sunlit uplands to a thin-deal or no-deal that even Brexit’s most ardent proponents are indirectly admitting is not in our interest. (Why else would they be trying to blame Remainers for it?)
Many believe no-deal Brexit, or a harsh Brexit closely resembling it, has been the end-game all along. That’s the sort of Brexit that delivers excess profits to the Tory Party’s disaster capitalist backers — those who are willing to wreck our economy, then clean up in the stock, currency and derivative markets by betting against it. It will see the greatest transfer of wealth from the less well-off to the rich since the enclosure of the common lands in the late 1800s. Business and personal assets will be sold at bargain-basement prices as those of us already near-bankrupted by coronavirus try to raise cash to cover bills, company pension funds will lose value as the stock market is hit, and the cost of just about everything will go up. All of this will have the most severe impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
If Brexiters had been honest about Brexit’s effects from the beginning, it is unlikely a majority of those who voted on that fateful day on 23 June 2016, would have voted Leave. But Brexiters were clever. They unleashed a sophisticated “boil the frog” operation. The myth of frog-boiling is that if you put a frog directly into boiling water it jumps out, but if you put it in cold water and bring it gradually to the boil, it gets acclimatised until it ends up cooked. In real life, the frog would jump out of the slowly boiling water, but the myth persists and gives its name to the scammers’ technique of reeling their marks in gently.
This is how “some” of the British public – enough to give the Tories an 80-seat majority – have been “boiled” over the past five years on the long and winding road from sunlit uplands to thin or no-deal Brexit.
The Brexit Boiled Frog Temperature Timescale:
5°: “Better off out” (Nigel Farage and assorted Brexiters, pre-23 June 2016)
10°: “We hold all the cards” (Michael Gove, 9 April 2016)
15°: “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down” (Boris Johnson, 26 June 2016)
20°: “No downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside” (David Davis, 10 October 2016)
25°: “Exact same benefits” (David Davis, 24 January 2017)
30°: “A little worse off” (David Davis, 30 March 2017)
35°: “Dunkirk Spirit” (Allison Pearson, 1 August 2017)
40°: “It won’t be Mad Max” (David Davis, 19 February 2018)
45°: “Fifty years before benefits” (Jacob Rees-Mogg, 21 July 2018)
50°: “Adequate food” (Dominic Raab, 24 July 2018)
55°: “Could not guarantee that people would not die as a result of a “no deal” arrangement” (Matt Hancock to Cabinet, 15 November 2018)
60°: “Poorer for 30 years” (Lucy Harris, future Brexit Party MEP, 18 May 2019)
65°: “Yellowhammer” – WW2-level deprivation and disruption (government leak to The Times, 18 August 2019)
70°: “No deal would be damaging” (Michael Gove to NFU, 7 February 2019)
75°: “Odds of no-deal are a million-to-one against” (Boris Johnson, 26 June 2019)
80°: “Oven-ready deal” (Boris Johnson, 31 Oct 2019)
85°: “Use COVID as cover for the damage of no-deal Brexit” (Cabinet strategy, reported 3 June 2020)
90°: “Tear up the Withdrawal Agreement (aka oven-ready deal)” (Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and others, 20 September 2020)
95°: “No deal can be a good outcome” (Boris Johnson, 7 September 2020)
100°: “Prepare for no-deal” (Boris Johnson, 16 October 2020)
There are many other pronouncements that could be included, but these are the soundbites that resonated with the public at the time. Odd that Remainers should be blamed for all this, since Brexiters and/or those committed to achieving Brexit have been in power since David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister pretty much immediately after the vote.
As awful as the past five years of gaslighting have been, this kakistocracy of a government has out-done itself in awfulness over the past few weeks. We’ve been subjected to our government in general and our bullying Home Secretary Priti Patel in particular crowing about ending our free movement. Except they don’t admit to that, or course. They pretend free movement is something imposed on us, against our will, and is responsible for illegal immigration, when it is in fact the most extraordinary *reciprocal* right and privilege to study, work, set up a business, buy a property or retire on our own continent as if in our own country.
Please forgive us if we’re not dancing in the streets because Liz Truss has secured the right for business people to freely visit Switzerland for up to 90 days, when previously any of us could go there freely, at any moment, for business or otherwise. We could even stay beyond 90 days if we fulfilled the conditions for free movement. Yes, free movement came with conditions and controls. It’s just the British government, alone of all member states, never applied them. Now the proverbial baby has been thrown out with bathwater rendered toxic by extreme right-wing politics, and we’ve all been stripped of our free movement rights.
On the subject of Liz Truss, she has bored us all to death with her endless stream of Instagram photos, memes, and little video clips bigging up her trade negotiating skills, when all she’s done is negotiate roll-overs of trade deals we already had, often on slightly worse terms. The Japan deal is a case in point. Every stage in agreeing the deal has been accompanied by a flurry of social media activity, articles and moments of Tory triumphalism in parliament. Emily Thornberry was right to burst her bubble by giving her a right-old trouncing in parliament.
Those extra items on zero tariffs not included in the EU trade deal with Japan? We don’t export those products. Any of them. The free quota we have for our exports to Japan? Whatever might be left-over from the EU quota. That’s it. If the EU uses up its entire quota, too bad for British exporters. They’ll just have to deal on WTO terms. The balance of value of the deal between the parties? 87 per cent in Japan’s favour, only 13 per cent in ours. The gains to be made for the UK economy? As Emily Thornberry pointed out, this is a decline from what we were making under the EU-Japan FTA, but the International Trade Department has dishonestly made its comparisons as if that deal did not exist and the UK economy had never benefited from it.
Truss’s latest posts boast about roll-over deals with Egypt and Macedonia. Let’s not even go there. Is it churlish to point out all of these deals she has been bragging about were supposed to have been rolled over by midnight on 27 March 2019? There are still several to go and we’re nearly at the end of 2020. We know what happens to a Universal Credit claimant if they are ten minutes late to an appointment. Yet we’re supposed to offer three cheers to Liz Truss for this inadequate, incomplete performance, twenty-one months after the deadline. She’s like a needy puppy that has just ruined your new sofa by taking a dump on it, but still expects you to pat it on the head, feed it treats and rub its tummy. Astonishingly, members of the Tory party have just voted her the most popular member of the cabinet. What does that say about the rest of them?
Moving on… George Useless (as my dyed-in-the-wool Tory father has taken to calling the MP for Camborne and Redruth) said sheep farmers should just turn their hand to beef farming if [when] Brexit destroys their business. It was Fatima being expected to chuck in her life-long training as a ballerina to work in cyber all over again. “Andy the sheep farmer’s next job could be in beef farming. He just doesn’t know it yet.” The ‘could’ in that formulation does a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. What makes good pasture for sheep may not sustain a beef herd.
Perhaps we should cut George Eustice some slack. After all, his family farms fruit, not livestock. Except, no. He’s a cabinet minister —and not just any old cabinet minister either. He’s the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He should know the difference between sheep and beef farming, and the specialised production systems of each. His comment was insensitive and specious.
For their next trick, our morally bankrupt government tried to palm off a triumph of international cooperation as a purely British achievement. Matt Hancock, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Fabricant and assorted bigoted Tory MPs claimed the UK had only been able to approve the Pfizer vaccine so quickly because of Brexit. The regulator reminded them that we are still operating under EU law until the end of the year, and that we had relied on an emergency provision in that law that allows members states to approve a medicine before it has been licensed by the European Medicines Agency. All other member states could have done this, but they chose scrutiny and safety over speed. The childishness of our politicians is a national humiliation.
As if that wasn’t cringe-worthy enough, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson torched our already burning reputation with a metaphorical flame-thrower. He told LBC radio we were the first to approve the vaccine because we have the best regulators. What’s more, Britain is the best country in the world. Better than France. Better than Belgium. Better than America. We don’t know how he is measuring “better”, but we’ll just add this diplomatic gelignite to his ever-increasing list of gaffes. Telling Russia to “go away and shut up”. Scuppering a £10 billion trade deal with China by threatening to send a gun-boat to the Pacific as a provocation to the super-power. Requesting the Royal Navy to fire paint-balls at Spanish ships as a humiliation. Then there are the fresh wounds over failing to adequately prepare schools for the pandemic, leading to okey-cokey school attendance, and the exams fiasco of this summer.
Conservatives have now taken to using internet trolling techniques to ridicule anybody who insists on reading an international treaty before signing or voting for it. Yes, in spite of our own Prime Minister claiming he hadn’t understood the deal he hastily signed up to in January (having sold it to the electorate in December 2019 as “oven-ready”, and now wishing to renege on it), the Tories are attempting to shame anyone who demands to know what Britain is being signed up to before approving it.
When did this level of stupidity become patriotic? When did the foolishness of not reading and understanding the small print of laws, contracts and treaties become a public virtue? When did it stop being an MP’s solemn duty to scrutinise policies, laws and treaties that will have an impact on citizens’ lives? When did we go from MPs doing the job we pay them to do being designated as thwarting the putative “will of the people”? When did we go from the Brexit ambition of the best and easiest deal with the EU ever known to humanity, to meekly accepting and approving any old deal, no matter how harmful it might be to our interests? It has come gradually upon us via one of the most successful “boil the frog” gaslighting operations ever inflicted on any population, anywhere in the world. Too late it may be to prevent a disastrous, harmful Brexit, but we can still expose and oppose the worst government in British history.
As for tulip mania, no doubt someone will breed a new tulip and call it Brexit. You won’t know what colour it’s going to be and it doesn’t matter, because it won’t ever flower. It’ll just poison everything in its vicinity. I won’t be queuing up to buy it!