It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally spotted one of those “Brexit opportunities” cited in the job title of the cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. Thanks to the UK’s departure from the European Union, the British government has gifted us with an apparently bottomless supply of industrial-strength bullshit.
I use the term in the sense distilled by the eminent philosopher Harry G Frankfurt, whose bestselling treatise, On Bullshit, defined it as speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. While your basic liar cares about the truth enough to hide it, the pedlar of bullshit is unbothered whether their words are true or false, so long as the listener is persuaded. Insouciance towards the facts is the essential trait. The Brexit project was always rich in bullshit – the £350m on the side of the bus could have come straight from Frankfurt’s essay – so it’s hardly a surprise that this government of Brexiters has become a world-beating producer of the stuff.
Its latest batch relates to the Northern Ireland protocol, which the government says is “fundamentally undermining” the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to the province after three decades of murderous war. The Democratic Unionist party, which campaigned hard for leave in 2016 – even as Northern Ireland voted to remain by 56% to 44% – so despises the protocol, it refuses to take up its place in Belfast’s devolved institutions until it’s gone. The Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns waves before the cameras a thick ream of documents showing the sheer volume of paperwork the protocol demands simply to move goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Who, the unsuspecting viewer wonders, could be responsible for such a heinous measure? Which authority, either wicked or stupid, imposed on Boris Johnson and his government a protocol that is making business impossible, thwarting self-rule in Northern Ireland and jeopardising peace?
The answer, of course, is Boris Johnson and his government. As he and his ministers know, none of this was forced on them by “a foreign power”, as Rees-Mogg puts it. On the contrary, the protocol was devised, praised and then passed into law by Johnson, his ministers and his MPs. They want to blame the Europeans, pretending it’s beastly Brussels that is so heedless of Northern Ireland and its exceptionally delicate position – but this is entirely on them.
They’re hoping most of us will have forgotten how this situation arose; and it’s quite true that Britons do have an ignoble tendency towards forgetfulness when it comes to Ireland. But it’s not that long ago. Once the Conservative party was bent on a hard Brexit that took the UK out of both the customs union and single market, that meant there would have to be a border marking those bodies’ outer frontier.
Most could see that that border could not be on the island of Ireland, separating the Republic from the north, without reopening the wounds of the Troubles. That left only one option: Northern Ireland would retain some of the old European arrangements, and the border would run down the Irish Sea. But that would distinguish Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, striking directly at unionism’s defining creed: that Northern Ireland and Britain are one.
No British prime minister would do such a thing, said Theresa May. “Under no circumstances,” agreed Johnson in July 2019. But a few months later, he broke that promise. He did it so he could get a deal with the EU, claim it was “oven ready” and win a general election on that basis. Which he duly did.
Even at the time, the government’s own official documents showed how this new bargain would entail the very border checks that Johnson now describes as unacceptable. One senior mandarin had patiently spelled it all out to the prime minister, in detail. But he couldn’t have cared less, that official tells me. All that mattered was being able to say a deal had been done. Johnson thought he would deal with the consequences later. After all, it was only Northern Ireland. And so here we are.
Ah, but the problem is not the protocol itself, say ministers. It’s all about the way Brussels is implementing it. That doesn’t wash: any border down the Irish Sea, however softly handled or lightly enforced, would offend that defining article of unionist faith. But let’s say light-touch implementation would help and was all the UK government wanted. If that were true, then London would be engaged in the slow, patient work of diplomacy and talks, “grinding through the technicalities”, as one former negotiator puts it. But it has not been doing that. Instead of welcoming moves from the other side, it has preferred grandstanding, threatening to blow the whole thing up. Now it says it will “disapply” the protocol altogether, refusing to honour what it agreed.
That would, as May has argued, destroy Britain’s international reputation at a stroke: the UK would be a rogue state, its signature worthless. It would also prompt EU retaliation, triggering a trade war that would cost UK businesses dear, just as the country is in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis.
From the start, this issue has involved magical thinking: remember the mythical “alternative arrangements” that would somehow make the border vanish into thin air? Six years after the referendum, the Brexit bullshit keeps coming. Today alone, Rees-Mogg suggested one of the benefits of Brexit was the ability to tackle the shortage of HGV drivers – when it was Brexit that made that shortage so much worse. He said “The economic benefits of Brexit are … coming through the whole time,” when the dogs on the street know Brexit has hit UK trade hard, as putting up barriers between us and our biggest, nearest market was always going to. Rees-Mogg was touring the broadcast studios to announce a new drive to cut 90,000 civil service jobs – apparently hoping we’d forget that not long ago the government was telling us it needed to hire 50,000 more people to process, you guessed it, Brexit paperwork.
Back when we were in the EU, it was butter mountains and wine lakes we had to contend with. Now that we’re on the outside, we face a far uglier blot on the national landscape: a vast and growing heap of bullshit. And it stinks.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist