Professor Chris Grey looking at last week’s events in terms of the blurring of truth and lies that is in part a legacy of Brexit, and has strange parallels with Putin’s ‘spy’ mindset.

First published: March 2022.

Last week, in one of his regular and excellent analyses of the Ukraine War, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, makes an interesting observation about Vladimir Putin. His background is that of a spy, rather than soldier, and as such he “has an instinct for the covert, the fabricated and the dishonest, for gaining advantage through manipulating perceptions, leaving his opponents disoriented …”. It leads him to construct fantastical world views, which are resistant to accepting any realities which contradict them. Soldiers, or at least “the best soldiers”, Freedman argues, are honest and realistic in their appraisals: “there is a harsh reality of war that cannot be gainsaid”.

Freedman’s point is that Putin’s addiction to the dishonesty of the spy may blind him to the many ways in which Russia’s attack on Ukraine is not going according to the plan which his fantasies anticipated. This leads to important questions about what prospects, if any, there may be for peace in Ukraine the central of which is “can a war launched on lies be stopped with the truth”? That is the subject of Freedman’s essay.

That Putin’s modus operandi is one of fabrication and manipulation has a relevance for Brexit. I have never accepted the proposition that Brexit was caused by Kremlin influence – that is far too reductionist an explanation of a complex and multi-faceted event. But it is undoubtedly the case that, as summarised by Peter Jukes last week, Putin was active in attempting to solicit Brexit and the fact that it happened was hugely to his advantage.

The much-delayed publication in July 2020 of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s ‘Russia Report’ does not shed much light on what Russia was doing during the referendum, principally because the intelligence services didn’t investigate it, but suggests it is “inconceivable” that such an investigation would not have shown Russian “intent” to interfere (paragraph 43). We can be sure that this wasn’t because Putin wished us well, what we can’t be sure of is whether and to what extent his activities affected how people voted. But the modus operandi of fabrication and manipulation has a second relevance for Brexit, which is quite separate to whatever Putin may or may not have been up to.

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The gaslighting of Britain

Whilst I certainly don’t draw any direct comparison between Brexiters in general, or Boris Johnson in particular, and Putin and his regime, there is an oblique resemblance of mindset in the insistence on maintaining that fantasies must be true, even in the face of reality. Such a mindset has characterised the entire Brexit process. In a recent post, I discussed the many ways in which Brexit “wasn’t just sold with lies, it actually consisted of lies” and, over two years ago, the way that ‘Zersetzung Brexit’ creates a disorienting swirl of misinformation and disinformation (that metaphor derives from the psy-ops of the Stasi in East Germany, which were well-known to ex-KGB officer Putin who was once based there).

The particular comparison I drew was with “the way that it is becoming almost impossible to separate out what is true from what is false, what is intended from what is accidental, what is incompetent from what is malevolent”, or what is often called ‘gaslighting’. However, I also made the point that this was not necessarily to suggest some deliberate conspiracy of Brexiters or the government to mislead or confound the rest of us, but instead (or also) something that they did to themselves. In that sense, it is both more complex and perhaps more dangerous than simple dishonesty or lack of realism.

It is through this frame that we can understand many of the current events in the UK.

Reality not allowed to intrude on fantasy

One characteristic of the most committed Brexiters is that they are able (and are obliged) to continually distort new events in order to fit them into their pre-existing narrative. This has long been evident in the way that their claims are ‘unfalsifiable’. Anything that happens is taken to ‘prove’ that Brexit was right, and nothing that happens can show it to be wrong.

So it is currently, with the Ukraine war. As so often, Daniel Hannan provides the most convoluted example of Brexiter sophistry. Writing in the Washington Examiner, he proposes that the war has made nationalism “fashionable” again, against the supposed way that “sophisticated people” had derided it as “the ultimate low-status opinion, associated with Brexit …”. Here, he re-purposes the always absurd idea that freely-chosen EU membership was some kind of oppression from which Brexit was a ‘national liberation’ by lazily, even insultingly, implying that it bears comparison with resisting a military annexation. It is all the lazier and more absurd coming at a time when Ukraine is seeking immediate membership of the EU, whilst Georgia and Moldova have both applied to join.

If Hannan’s comparison is grotesque, then that of former Brexit Party MEP, Ben Habib, is positively unhinged. In, naturally, the Express, he compares the invasion of Ukraine with “the annexation [sic] of Northern Ireland by the EU”. Whilst admitting that no use of military force is involved – which to any half-way sensible person invalidates the entire comparison – he insists that the EU’s “aim with respect to the United Kingdom is the same as Putin’s with Ukraine”. Clearly, it is gibberish, since not only is there no armed force involved but the Northern Ireland Protocol is part of a negotiated agreement, hailed by Boris Johnson as a triumph, and freely signed by him as part of an international treaty. It’s all the more outlandish given that, when an MEP, Habib actually voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol – a good example, perhaps, of ‘self-gaslighting’.

Another person now apparently regretting his parliamentary vote for the Protocol is Steve Baker, the ERG ‘hard man of Brexit’, who last week called for the immediate triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol, regardless of the war in Ukraine. This, at least, does not involve drawing a false comparison with what is happening in Ukraine, but instead acts as if nothing, or nothing of relevance, is happening there. In this sense, it seems more to be prompted by frustration that – as predicted in my previous piece – the war is tending to improve UK-EU relations or, at the very least, reducing the appetite for antagonism.

Even so, Johnson’s government is unable to resist constant claims to be “the global leader” of the international response to the war, and at least implying that the EU is marginal or under-contributing. It’s a theme that Hannan, again, articulates, as in another article last weekend where he suggests that the war has discredited “Ultra-Remainers” who said that Brexit would mean the UK losing all influence – pointing out the various things that Johnson has done in response to the Russian invasion, whilst sneering at the EU’s reactions.

Hannan over-states the extent that this amounts to UK ‘leadership’ but the real problem with his argument is that it is based on the familiar Brexiter construction of strawmen. Just as they render warnings (which the latest data analysis continues to prove correct) of reduced trade with the EU as claims that ‘all trade will end’, so too do they pretend that warnings of reduced influence are predictions of ‘no influence at all’. There may have been the odd person saying this, but it wasn’t a generally made claim. However, that Brexit has reduced UK influence, and that the response to Russia has centred on the US-EU relationship, is plain, at least to international relations experts. And, even if that isn’t accepted, it is still, and crucially, the case that nothing the UK has done, or might conceivably do, required Brexit. So, at the very most, Hannan’s argument is the now increasingly common one from Brexiters that the worst fears of some remainers proved false. But Brexit wasn’t sold on that modest basis – it was meant to have unequivocally beneficial results.

Fantasy is reality

In fact, a fair-minded assessment of the UK response to Russia’s latest aggression in Ukraine would say it has been mixed: strong on early and ongoing defensive military support, reasonable on economic sanctions in general but weak on rapid sanctioning of oligarchs, and woefully inadequate on refugees. And whilst none of this, in and of itself, is because of Brexit, the gap between what has been done and what is being claimed to have been done does have a strongly Brexit-related aspect. Both Brexit itself, and Johnson’s post-Brexit government, have the ‘spy-like’ quality of being not just dishonest but of smudging, even dissolving, the line between truth and lies.

No doubt that did not start with Brexit, but it has been much intensified by it, because the only way to sustain the fantasies of Brexit has been to insist that what Brexiters claim to be true is, in fact, true. Thus the hardcore of them have never accepted that Brexit required a border – somewhere – with Ireland, and have never accepted that it required all the border checks that have arisen with the EU generally. Instead, these realities have been treated as an unnecessary punishment by an EU intent on thwarting Brexit, aided and abetted by remainers within the UK and especially by the civil service. In a similar way, when faced with realities, the response has been to insist that there is an easy solution at hand (technological solutions for the Irish border, GATT Article XXIV for trade and, currently, Article 16 for the Protocol) if only the faint-hearted and the black-hearted would take it. The problem isn’t (ever) Brexit, it’s lack of ‘belief in Brexit’.

It’s this Brexity idea that reality must be as the fantasy or lies claim it to be which has shifted British politics from the normal practice of, probably, all governments to overstate their achievements to one where simply stating an achievement is deemed to have made it a reality. Johnson’s government has made that its hallmark, and no doubt that is in some measure because of his own personal mendacity, but it was immanent in the Brexiter mindset in any case. Now, not just in relation to Ukraine, but Covid and just about every policy area, his post-Brexit government is defined by making grand announcements but then doing nothing (from e.g. the ‘dementia moon shot’ to the Northern rail link), or making grand claims for what it has achieved which turn out to be false when investigated (from e.g. claims about the numbers of people in work to claims about crime falling).

In a way, it is a version of the theme that has characterised this Brexit administration all along, namely acting like a campaign rather than a government. And it has to be admitted that it has paid dividends, because enough people remember the grand announcements or claims but barely register the lack of follow-through or the subsequent revelations of falsity. In relation to Brexit, a prime example is the false claim that the UK was able to roll-out its vaccines early because of having left the EU, and the accompanying misleading claim that this has meant that the UK’s entire vaccine programme has been much more successful than that of other European countries. As a recent survey shows, a better vaccination programme is by far (at 49%) the most widely believed benefit of Brexit.

Britain’s refugee shame

With the Ukraine war, we see the same pattern. Tough-sounding claims about ‘world-leading’ sanctions on Russia turn out to be exaggerated or the reality to be milder or slower than those of the US and the EU, which, in passing, also gives the lie to the Brexiter claim that ‘independence’ would bring agility and nimbleness to the UK. Far more obnoxious have been the endless lies and distortions about provision for Ukrainian refugees, which has now become a matter of international censure and disgrace. It is hard to keep track of them all, but they include promises of ‘rapid processing’ of visa applications, and of a ‘surge team’ to deal with applications in Calais that was then to be in Lille until, yesterday, it turned out it would be 30 miles away in Arras. In these and other ways, desperate people have been pushed from pillar to post in confusing and undoubtedly frightening ways, with pitifully small numbers so far receiving the visas that the UK, unlike the EU, insists they must have.

Overall, this amounts to a shamefully feeble response, especially compared with the EU – so much, again, for the nimbleness that was supposed to come from escaping EU red tape – but perhaps almost as bad is the hypocrisy of continual claims that Britain’s approach is a “generous” one. Johnson, as ever, is the misleader-in-chief, quoting highly selective statistics to pretend that Britain has out-performed other European countries, leading Guardian columnist Zoe Williams to make the highly apposite observation that “when you stand up and deliberately mislead, call the worst the best, turn facts on their head, it all sounds a bit Putin-esque”. It also sounds remarkably like something else: the way that Johnson and others presented Brexit.

Johnson has now started to talk about taking hundreds of thousands of refugees and – with tedious predictability – there’s a promise that ‘the army will be drafted in’ to help, which has become this government’s standard way of showing that it is dealing robustly with issues (e.g. flooding, vaccination, ambulance driving, tanker driving, Nightingale hospital building). We’ll see what happens, but we’re well past the point where such promises constitute anything that his government is held accountable to. He and his ministers just say what they think will get them off the hook, and later obfuscate or set up some interminable inquiry and then say it’s time to move on.

It can be argued that pre-Brexit the government would have been just as unwelcoming to Ukrainian refugees, and it’s also true that the (post-Brexit) welcome for Hong Kong refugees has been remarkable. As regards the former, I still think part of the picture is the hangover of the Brexit panic about migration from Eastern Europe and Priti Patel’s post-Brexit frenzy, stoked by Nigel Farage’s vile campaign, about refugees and asylum seekers. But admittedly it is a strange picture. For if, as might be thought, the government wants to appeal to its Brexit base and Farage-vulnerable flank by strict control of Ukrainian numbers, then why keep saying that it will do more, which is likely to infuriate that base? Or if it recognizes that many Tory MPs and most Tory voters would support a liberal approach, then why keep failing to deliver its promises? The same could also be asked of the government’s failure to live up to promises made to Afghan refugees.

The perils of performative politics

Of course, one answer could just be incompetence and lack of resources, or the habitual disaster of sub-contracting. But I think another answer – or another part of the answer – does indeed lie with the ‘performative’ politics of Brexit in which saying something is true supposedly makes it true, if only you believe it enough. It is this which from the outset gave Johnson’s Brexit government its ‘cult-like’ quality, and it has leached into, or is part of, the wider environment of post-truth politics.

Hence the rhetoric (e.g. massive trade deals, Global Britain, our ‘proud history of giving shelter’, world-leading this that and the other) comes to be inseparable from reality – except, perhaps, to the ‘experts’ from whom ‘we’ve heard too much’. The other aspect of this performative rhetoric is performative silence. These are the things which are ignored, left unsaid, or rendered unsayable. Hence, also, Brexiters scarcely acknowledge any of the myriad of ways, from lost trade to lost influence, that Brexit is damaging Britain, even to the point of trying to ban the word ‘Brexit’ (a parallel, perhaps, with Putin’s refusal to call the war by that name).

It's important to understand that ‘performativity’ does not simply mean ‘performance’ – that is, it is not just about putting on an act or knowingly telling lies and leaving truths unspoken. It also ‘performs’ or ‘does’ things: specifically, it makes the rhetoric and lies real to at least some who speak them and to at least some who hear them. That is profoundly debilitating for the rest of us, who are not just sick of the lies but actually made sick by them, because it becomes ever harder to hold on to our own sense of reality.

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Even as regards the Ukrainian refugee issue it’s already hard, after only a couple of weeks, to recall just exactly what was promised and when. It’s precisely that sense of disorientation that Zersetzung engenders. It’s far worse than that, of course, for the refugees themselves in adding misery and fear to all that they have already experienced. More widely, as I warned in a piece in January, before the war had actually begun, there’s a danger of the UK performatively promising more than it can really deliver in support for Ukraine. In matters of life and death, rhetoric is not enough, nor is belief and nor is fantasy. Performativity and post-truth can only do so much and, as seems to be slowly happening over Ukrainian refugees, can with sufficient public and political pressure be discredited by truth and facticity.

So this brings us back to Freedman’s diagnosis of Putin as a dishonest fantasist, gaining advantage through manipulating perceptions and leaving his opponents disoriented, and the question of what he will do faced with the realities of a Ukraine which neither welcomes his invading army nor buckles to its assault. The answer to that matters far more to the world, and certainly to Ukrainians, than anything to do with Brexit, but a version of the same question applies to Brexit Britain.

We, too, enacted a policy based on manipulative fantasies that “the best soldiers” (for which, here, substitute those with experience and expertise in everything from trade to international relations) knew and know to be unrealistic. So do we push on, blundering ever more deeply into a self-delusional world where words substitute for actions and ‘true belief’ trumps reality? Or do we regain the pragmatism and realism for which, at least by reputation, we were once, to coin a phrase, ‘world-leading’?

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Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.


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