It’s not self-doubt

A cartoon showing Boris Johnson wearing a baseball cap with the word "Brexit" on it, and underneath, the words, "I lied to YOU. But don't worry, I'll be fine!".

So, last week the news many of us had been dreading for months finally arrived: Boris Johnson, the inveterate liar, bigot and money-waster who has a trail of diplomatic incidents behind him, became leader of the Conservative party and, by default, prime minister. He gave a speech announcing a whole load of domestic policies including thousands of new front-line police officers which will, of course, cost a lot of money, but gave us a lecture on “national self-doubt” in regard to people’s well-founded fears about Brexit. Johnson and other Brexiteers have been using this line of argument for some time, and not just on the Tory front bench: Brexit has not happened so far because of people’s defeatism or lack of positivity. It’s a classic example of magical thinking and will convince nobody who is living in the real world.

“Magical thinking” is a fallacy where you attribute cause and effect where no such relationship actually exists, and some people are very prone to attaching such notions to “positive thinking”. People will be encouraged to be ‘positive’ about something that in reality they have no control over, or over its outcome; someone might be encouraged to think positively about a medical operation that might have good or bad results, depending on what happens when they are under a general anaesthetic and have no power over the situation. It is also very conducive to “stab in the back” narratives: that a project failed because of defeatism and negativity on the part of people who never wanted it to go ahead in the first place, which is supposedly why Theresa May (a Remainer in 2016) did not succeed in getting us out of the EU. Tory Brexiteers always knew there were people in their own party, let alone wider society, that were opposed to Brexit; it suits their purposes to claim that it was these people’s fault that Brexit has not happened and that no deal acceptable to them has been made, rather than that it is down to their incompetence or their delusion that there was ever going to be. Joining the EEC was a Tory policy in the 1970s; staying in was Thatcher’s policy in the 1980s and leaving was Labour’s during its dark years.

The vote to leave the EU was narrow, with fewer than 52% in favour. This was not a decisive vote for a “clean break” but necessitated compromise. What happened was that the hardliners in the Tory party seized control and interpreted the result as a mandate for a ‘hard’ Brexit. The people who wanted to remain in the EU had strong reasons: that much of our economy is tied to the EU, that it allows goods to move freely across borders with no fees or paperwork (and that without it, we will have to make truck parks of several of our motorways, plans for which are now being made) and that these goods include much of the food we eat, that the leave campaign illegally overspent and lied, that they drew on a legacy of myths that emanated from the Tory press over the years, and that many of those who voted to leave would have been satisfied with changes to British policy, particularly (but not just) the way we engage with Europe. But over the past three years, we have not been allowed to discuss these things, because a political elite drunk on power have repeatedly stressed the ‘importance’ of “honouring the referendum result” as well as what they think was the chief motive behind it: immigration.

It’s not “self-doubt” that means we have no confidence in Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver a deal which is to the advantage of most of us. Many of us could try and live in a country with no food on the shelves, with the readily-available medicine we know now unavailable and with a crumbling infrastructure, but we do not want to because there is no need — the last time we were as isolated as that, there was a world war on and we were facing an invasion from Nazi Germany — and some people are disabled or chronically ill and could not. But much as, in the words of Stella Young, no amount of smiling at a flight of steps by someone in a wheelchair will turn it into a ramp, no amount of positive thinking by ordinary people will turn an overprivileged, ignorant buffoon into a competent diplomat and negotiator. The outcome of Brexit is not in our hands, but theirs. We are awake on the operating table and we do not know if they’ve read our notes. It is not ourselves we doubt, but them.

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