Using a very broad brush, the Leave vote represented two groups: social conservatives who felt threatened by immigration, and the group often referred to as the left behind. Brexiteers lied heavily to sell both groups snake oil: there would be more money for the NHS; we would avoid a flood of immigrants coming from “about to join” Turkey; we would get the easiest deal in history with the EU because we held all the cards; and we would be able to make lots of advantageous trade deals that the EU could not reach on our behalf.
Their lies were gradually exposed over the two years following the referendum. There would in fact be less money for the NHS, and regardless it cannot hire enough nurses or doctors because EU citizens no longer want those jobs; Turkey didn’t join; and the EU will not give us all the benefits we had as members. Liam Fox has not even managed to replicate third party trade deals we have enjoyed as a result of being in the EU, let alone get improved versions, which is hardly surprising because the EU has a lot to offer and great experience in doing trade deals and we have neither.
To say “but both sides lied!” misses the point. We knew what Remain was, while the Leavers sold a prospectus that was false in almost every detail. As a result, the Brexiters stopped talking about the easiest deal in history and started talking about no deal. In fact they knew before 2016 that there was no plan they were happy with before the vote – but because they hate the EU, either because they want a neoliberal paradise or they are nostalgic Little Englanders who want to rule the waves again, they have just moved from one set of lies to another.
The only difference between the lies they told in 2016 and those they tell now is the scale of disaster they are pretending will not happen. The reality is that leaving in a controlled and partial way would hurt business but they would have time to adjust, but leaving suddenly and completely has business in an absolute panic, and consumers and workers would soon feel the impact. The snake oil sellers are unmoved: just more Project Fear, they say.
Our political influence on the global stage, already severely dented, would crash to zero under no deal. No worries, say the snake oil sellers, we stood alone once before, as they endlessly churn out utterly misplaced WWII analogies. (This is only possible because none of them actually lived through WWII, but instead just remember santised histories and films.) As David Heniq says, that this is happening is political failure on a grand scale.
In US popular culture, snake oil sellers peddled their wares in Wild West medicine shows. In the UK they do so in much of the press, and relentlessly in the broadcast media. Even when BBC journalists know their claims are all garbage, most are too frightened to challenge them because they fear being picked out as another example of Remain bias by the right wing print media. Brexiters have all the time in the world to appear in the media because they do not need to analyse policies. They just pick up the latest sound bite and off they go.
No deal is like someone who hates modernity but cannot work out why, and so retreats to living as a hermit in a cave. It will not last long. No country on earth wants no trade deals, which is why recent history is all about new trade deals being done rather than undone. Just as Lexiters talk of deals with Bolivia and other countries that have “true socialist” governments, the Brexiters end state is for the UK to become an unincorporated territory of the US. Ask the people of Puerto Rico what that feels like.
Why do so many of the public still believe these lies, when it is obvious that these snake oil sellers lied or, to be too charitable, got it so wrong in 2016? Being fooled once is understandable, but twice in such quick succession? Well, not all those who vote Leave are fooled. In particular, a few of the “left behind” group have switched to Remain, while others in that group can see that no deal would hit them hard.
But a remarkable number of 2016 Leavers still back the snake oil sellers. One reason goes back to the media. The Brexiters pretend that Remain told just as many lies during the campaign, and that 2016 Project Fear has been proved to be such – and unfortunately too many in the broadcast media believe this. In reality, most forecasters got the decline of GDP and real wages as a result of the referendum over the last two years roughly right. As often happens, the media’s narrative and reality are very different, because the media does not talk to experts.
However a misleading media narrative is not the only cause of popular belief in the virtues of no deal. We have, I fear, a UK example of Trump-support syndrome.
Many of Trump’s supporters accept that he lies all the time but still support him. They believe that Trump supports their identity and values. Social conservatives feel threatened by multiculturalism, by social liberalism, by feminism (no dealers tend to be men), by the green movement. They also tend to be nostalgic for an old order. What better figure to represent all that than Rees-Mogg? Of course the old order they remember involved an industrialised economy with strong unions and a strong welfare state, while a no-deal UK run by the Brexiters would be a completely service economy with few unions and little welfare state. This is an irony of no deal: its supporters are nostalgic for a pre-neoliberal past, while its leaders want to give them even more of neoliberal modernity.
These Brexiter leaders are like the Republicans in the US they so admire: politicians armed with an ideology, who know little about the policies they peddle and the reality these policies would change. What they do specialise in is selling policies. The rest of the Conservative Party may be too attached to business to swallow no deal, but they were happy to enact austerity and the widespread use of sanctions for benefits. There may be some obvious liars who lie about lying, but more generally there is a party that continues to pretend that government cuts has nothing to do with an explosion in food bank use. The One Nation Tories of old are almost gone, and have little future in a party whose members, as Tim Bale explains, are obsessed with Brexit and mostly want no deal.
There will always be people who buy snake oil, particularly if it is linked by its sellers to medicines of old. If real snake oil sellers still existed today they would be banned from touting their wares.
The mechanism we used to have to keep these people out of politics was a critical media, but most of that media today seems either to be advertising the benefits of the snake oil, or incapable of challenging the snake oil sellers’ claims. The consequence of letting these charlatans run loose with no checks on the lies they tell is a country stockpiling food and medicine, and preparing to put troops on the streets – for no other reason but that too many people bought snake oil.
This piece originally appeared on Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog Mainly Macro.