February 18, 2019

Brexit Supporters Are On the Wrong Side of History

“When future historians try to understand how Britain ended up with a choice between chaos and becoming a satellite of the European Union, one question will stump them. Were these people telling deliberate lies or were they merely staggeringly ignorant? Where does mendacity stop and idiocy begin? Historians generally have to assume that people in power have a basic grasp of what they are doing, that their actions are intentional. They may use deception as a tactic and they may be deluded in what they think they can achieve. But they must, at least at the beginning, have some grasp on reality – otherwise they would not have achieved power. Yet, for the poor historians trying to make sense of Brexit, this assumption will be mistaken.

There is, of course, plenty of straightforward mendacity for them to identify. Boris Johnson’s whole journalistic and political career has been driven by his talent for taking minor regulations and distorting them into wildly exaggerated claims of oppression by the Eurocrats. This can’t be done by mistake. For example, you cannot by accident take, as Johnson did, a Council of Europe (not EU) convention on the repatriation of corpses and turn it into a repeated claim that “There really is European legislation on the weight, dimensions and composition of a coffin”. There isn’t. This is not ignorance – it is a knowing falsification of the truth. So let’s leave that aside. Historians will know it when they see it.

Their problem will be, rather, with the shades of obliviousness. Here our future scholars will have to try to distinguish between three kinds of ignorance: deliberate unknowing, crass self-delusion and what we can only call pig ignorance. So, for their benefit, here is a brief spotter’s guide.”

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