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It’s time to understand Brexit without the bulls**t

LIE MACHINE: Leader Nigel Farage speaks ar a Brexit Party campagn event ahead of the European election in May. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images - Credit: Archant

GAVIN ESLER unearthed enough Leave lies to fill a book.. So he’s written one.

I’m a recovering politician. After four weeks campaigning in the European elections as an anti-Brexit candidate for Change UK in London (I didn’t win), one encounter sticks in my mind. It was near Oxford Street. I was that annoying person handing out leaflets encouraging people to vote. Most passersby took a leaflet, many chatted and even offered words of encouragement. On the Tube – remarkably – strangers made eye-contact and started up conversations. It was great fun. But one woman, in her early 30s, turned up her nose.

“I won’t be voting for you,” she said firmly. “I’ll be voting for Nigel Farage.”

Oh, I said. Do you mind telling me why?

“Because,” she replied, “the European Union is totally undemocratic.”

The final two words were delivered with such certainty that all arguments to the contrary were obviously redundant.

“That’s odd,” I tried anyway. “You are voting in the European Union elections for Nigel Farage, who has been in the European parliament for 20 years. Which bits of that are undemocratic?”

A pause.

“Oh,” she said eventually. “I never thought of it like that.”

I’m sure Nigel Farage still got that woman’s vote. She had made her mind up about the EU over months and years and a two-minute street conversation with me based on facts to the contrary was not about to change her beliefs. Britain has endured years – decades – of unchallenged propaganda about the EU.

Lies and impossible promises infected the 2016 Brexit campaign like a virus. They have run through our political life ever since. Never in the field of human politics have so many lies been told by so many under-informed British politicians based on so few facts – as Churchill might have said. And so I thought about writing a book outlining the real facts about what Brexit would mean, because while Brexit itself seemed bad enough, it struck me that there may be worse to come.

If those who misled us about this, the biggest decision we have taken since the Second World War, are about to triumph, what will they mislead us about next? How about the NHS? Some Brexiteers have already begun suggesting that it would be a great idea to turn the best-value health care in the world into a private insurance system just like America. But again key information is missing – including the fact that health care is the biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States.

The next target for disinformation may well be our food after Brexit. We will be told that abandoning EU-wide standards on pesticides, antibiotics in meat, and accepting the delights of chlorinated chicken will not be a problem. But the big danger in constantly listening to all these lies and phoney promises is that we are slowly entering Trumpland, a world where lying has become normalised.

The Washington Post keeps count. As of April 2019, the newspaper says, “the tally in our database stands at 10,111” Trump false claims in 828 days of the presidency, an average of 12 lies a day. In the New York Times the columnist Charles Blow commented, “Donald Trump lies all the time. We know that. Some of us are incensed and disgusted by this. Others have been worn out by it. But few even attempt to deny or excuse it anymore. It has simply become a recognised feature of the man – and a predicament for the country.”

The United States and Britain were built on Enlightenment values – facts, reason, science, truth. America has already entered an Un-Enlightenment where science and reason are at times turned on their heads, climate change is denied, measles vaccination programmes are undermined, and the president of the United States himself repeats easily checkable mis- or dis-information.

He claimed Americans pay the highest taxes in the world. They don’t. He said that North Korea is de-nuclearising. They’re not. He boasts that he is much loved in the UK. He isn’t. Or that he is working hard in the White House, when he wasn’t. It’s like that old Chico Marx gag – “Who’re ya gonna believe? Me – or your own eyes?”

Britain is not Trumpland – or not yet. But time is running out. Boris ‘economical with the truth’ Johnson – is on course to become our factually-challenged next prime minister. And in all this, Brexit is simply the most obvious manifestation of Britain’s own Big Lie, our own Un-Enlightenment.

That’s why I began writing Brexit without the Bullshit, in the hope that facts still matter. The result is a book outlining what Brexit will actually mean for our daily lives, how it will affect our food, the people who work in our fields, the crops we grow, how we slaughter animals for meat, our schools and universities, our research programmes, our doctors, nurses and social care workers, our jobs and investments, our holiday plans, the divisions in our society, the rise in hate crimes and whether the United Kingdom will even continue to exist in 10 or 20 years.

Some facts are stunning. Almost all our seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers are EU 27 workers. Only about 1% are British. Some labour-intensive crops such as asparagus, cherries, raspberries and strawberries fell out of favour with British farmers in the 1990s because they were difficult to harvest at a low cost.

But after 2004 these crops returned in much larger volumes. That’s because in that year new EU countries – many from eastern Europe – began to provide a fresh supply of farm workers to do unskilled low-paid work.

When it comes to meat, it turns out only 5% of slaughterhouse vets are British; 95% come from the EU 27. Common pharmaceuticals from insulin to Viagra are almost all imported from the EU 27. Signing new deals with non-EU drug and medical suppliers is much more complicated than Boris Johnson and others would have you believe.

Then come the big questions. What new bureaucracies and health checks will be necessary to import – or export – food? Will the French authorities cooperate to make things work smoothly at Calais? Will food prices go up even more? They have increased already as a result of the fall in the pound since 2016 – and so have the numbers of British people using foodbanks.

Since a significant proportion of vets and vet nurses are from the EU, what about my dog’s health? What about his pet passport? How about my own travel plans? And what will happen when we try to strike new trade deals as we embrace – as the Brexiteers like to tell us – some kind of ‘Global Britain’?

Rather than listen to the Brexit Party clichés, I’ve been listening to American lobbyists in Washington DC. The lobbyists are demanding that any future US-UK trade deal should include the dismantling of EU food standards. That would mean British supermarkets accepting not just chlorinated chicken but ractopamine in pork (a substance banned in the EU, banned in China, Russia, and most other developed countries).

One key fact emerges for surviving Brexit – in any of its multifarious versions. We have to recognise that Brexit is not an event. It is a process. Even if we exit the EU by the latest made-up deadline of October 31, Brexit will not miraculously be concluded by the time we wake up on the morning of November 1.

Brexit will take years – literally years and years – to unfold, with complex negotiations abroad, time-consuming redrafting of laws and regulations at home, and companies rethinking their investment, manufacturing and employment programmes.

UK health service experts think our current nursing and doctor shortage will get worse. We are already 40,000 nurses short. Shortage of midwives is another under-recognised problem. We all know about the difficulties of getting GP appointments, but how about tests for cancer? One key screening element is created from Molybdenum-99, which itself is mostly produced in the EU 27 and – because it has a very short ‘half-life’ – it cannot be stockpiled. Delays at ports are predicted, especially in the event of no-deal. Department of Health civil servants have told me they are deeply concerned that supplies of vital medical goods, products and appliances may be held up, resulting in lives being lost.

Some of the self-harm of Brexit is clearly measurable, but perhaps the most important damage will be difficult to quantify. We can count jobs which go abroad, or factory closures. We can measure Britain’s economic growth and see how it is even now falling behind other countries. But we cannot immediately measure the damage to Britain’s reputation, to our soft power, to the idea that we are an inventive, entrepreneurial, problem-solving people, with a political system that has endured and been mostly competently managed for centuries. And yet perhaps it is 
here that the greatest damage is being done.

The heart of British soft power is our excellent world-renowned education system. Cambridge University has produced more Nobel prize winners than Japan and China combined. World leaders from the current president of Iran to former presidents of the United States have been educated here. University leaders are clear – all this soft power is at risk as a result of Brexit. Student numbers from abroad, especially among graduate students, are already down. Further falls are predicted.

And then there are the minor irritations. When Brexit happens we will need to pay for EU 27 visa waivers just to go on holiday to Benidorm or Paris or Rome. If we drive, we will need not just a British driving licence but one and possibly two international driving permits (one is valid for three years for most of the EU; but you will need a separate and different one lasting just 12 months for Spain, Malta and Cyprus).

And if you take your dog across the Channel, the government website tells you to ask your vet about the new rules. So I asked my vet about the new rules. She said the government hasn’t decided what the new rules will be. There’s a surprise.

We just do not know what the new rules for many parts of our lives will be. And here’s a confession: I was ignorant of most of the facts about Brexit until I began researching this book. I was even more ignorant when I voted in the 2016 EU referendum.

I simply did not know the reality of what Brexit would mean then. None of us knew, Leavers or Remainers. But we can know some of it now. No Brexit campaign bus in 2016 had the slogan ‘Vote Brexit For Chlorinated Chicken’, or ‘Vote Brexit To Send Jobs Abroad’ or ‘Vote Brexit To Be Poorer Than You Might Otherwise Be’.

Instead we had a campaign where we were told Turkey was about to join the EU, a European super-state army was a realistic possibility, and shedloads of money would come to the NHS. After three years of this nonsense it’s well past time for the real facts about Brexit. It’s time to understand Brexit – but without the bullshit.

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