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Brexit is here, so it’s time to review its grand promises. Spoiler: They got away with lies.
So here we are. Four and a half years, three prime ministers and two elections later, Britain finally has a Brexit deal. To do so, the country became divided by a Remain-vs.-Leave culture war, attacked its own democratic institutions, alienated its allies, and delighted its enemies. And what do we have to show for it? A Partnership Council with Europe, composed of dozens of technical subcommittees. Rarely in British history has such drama and high rhetoric ended in a result so drab.
Shortly before Prime Minister Boris Johnson persuaded the House of Commons to support the deal on Wednesday—just two days before it was to come into effect on January 1—he described this as a “historic resolution” that would finally solve the “old and vexed question of Britain’s political relations with Europe.” It is precisely the opposite.
This is not the end of anything; it is a beginning. Instead of negotiating as an equal member within the powerful European trading bloc, Britain will negotiate as an underpowered third party facing the wishes of 27 member-states. An intricate web of arbitration and retaliatory tariff-based punishments replace cooperation and debate. And those in Britain who long raged against the European Commission will instead rage against the Partnership Council.
The claim that Brexit meant closure was just the latest deceit in this long process, which was rooted in falsehoods from the start. Now that we know what Brexit really looks like, it’s worth recalling what its proponents promised—and considering what the success of populist dishonesty in politics means.
1) It’ll be simple. Michael Gove—a leading figure in the Conservative Party, strong proponent of Leave in the referendum of June 2016, and now senior minister in Johnson’s government—said during the Brexit campaign that “the day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards, and we can choose the path we want.” In fact, Britain struggled to gain any leverage against a much larger economic partner, so agreed to the EU’s conditions of departure and capitulated on nearly all European demands.
2) Our businesses will enjoy full access to Europe. Daniel Hannan, a prominent Leave advocate who last week was rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords, insisted before the referendum that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market,” the EU free-trade area for goods and services that accounts for 450 million people across the Continent. In fact, hardline Brexiters in the government—eager to ditch European regulations and rules, and especially to halt influxes of immigrants from the Continent—made departure from the single market a precondition of any Brexit deal.
3) Our people shall live and work in Europe as before. Johnson, the leading Leave advocate during the referendum, wrote just after the vote that “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.” In fact, Brits lost the right to free movement. Those who once could have retired to Spain or looked for work in France are no longer able to do so without extensive applications and paperwork.
4) No more red tape. For years, Brexiters insisted that leaving the EU would free British industry from needless European bureaucracy. In reality, the harmonization of regulations and customs meant (and still means for its members) that goods travel all over the EU without paperwork. Now that Britain has left, it faces the full impact of trade bureaucracy: entry and exit clearance, safety and security documents, sanitary and phytosanitary inspections, rules of origin checks. To handle the new backload of trucks queuing at the Dover-Calais trade route, vast parking lots are being built in Kent, a county bordering London that was once known as England’s garden.
5) We’ll restore the rights of parliament. The slogan of the Leave campaign was “Take Back Control,” which emphasized the idea of the British public reclaiming power from an unelected Brussels elite, and returning it to the sovereign parliament in London. In reality, the British governments that sought to implement Brexit have mangled and abused parliament. The first Brexit prime minister, Theresa May, tried to rob the legislature of its role in formally triggering departure from the EU, lest any uneasy members of parliament sought to delay. After this bid failed, she tried to deny parliament a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal that she had proposed. When Johnson took the top job, he suspended parliament altogether and against its will, in a move found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, he rammed through the 1,246-page Brexit trade deal in just one day.
6) Brexit means putting “the people” before “the elites.” This was the great lie at the heart of it all. In reality, the government of Johnson (himself about as elite as it gets, a posh graduate of Eton and Oxford who moved effortlessly from establishment journalism to political office) has allowed the well-connected to enrich themselves at public expense. A recent National Audit Office report into government procurement during the Covid pandemic concluded that government officials and members of parliament enjoyed “a high-priority lane” when it came to bids to provide PPE, personal protective equipment. Over £10 billion, about $13.5 billion, in contracts was awarded without competition, with a special channel allowing almost 500 suppliers with links to politicians or senior officials to pitch directly for work.
What is remarkable about these lies is not that they were told, or even believed. Politicians have always lied, and there have always been people ready to believe. What is remarkable is that there have been no consequences.
The age in which politicians found themselves in trouble for saying one thing and then doing another, or for being demonstrably and repeatedly incorrect, seems to be over. That didn’t start with Brexit. It was a corrosion that took place over years. The Iraq War, with the false claims about weapons of mass destruction, destroyed the trust of many British people in government. Next, the financial crash in 2008 destroyed their trust in big business. A scandal over politicians’ expenses in 2009 destroyed their faith in members of parliament. And the phone-hacking saga in 2011—in which tabloid reporters were caught illegally listening to the voicemails of crime victims among many others—destroyed trust in journalists. Underneath it all, social-media tribalism chiseled away at the notion of empirical truth.
By the time of the Brexit referendum, those who had previously evaluated the veracity of statements for the public—fact-checkers, investigative journalists, think tanks and economic institutes—had been branded part of a self-interested metropolitan “elite.” Brexiters used this new context to pursue a project that was demonstrably damaging to the economy, but that fulfilled their long-held ambitions to reverse the diversity, liberalism and international cooperation that typified contemporary Britain.
The principle of honor, of being expected to keep one’s word, has now almost completely disintegrated in British public life. Instead, the people who made those false claims sit at the top of national politics. Brexit created an age of frauds, where deception was not a barrier to success, but a precondition.
That, in the end, could be the most damaging legacy of Brexit—not the break from Europe or the illusory return of control to “the people.” Its price has been the undermining of truth as a functional concept in British political debate.
Ian Dunt, editor-at-large of Politics.co.uk, is the author of How to Be a Liberal: The Story of Liberalism and the Fight for its Life.