Jacob Rees-Mogg attends a fringe event to discuss Brexit during the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham in 2018. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The American social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has defined evil as exercising power to intentionally harm, hurt, destroy, or commit crimes against humanity. Clearly this definition relates to a range of human behaviour from the merely nasty to the historically atrocious.
In 1983 the American psychiatrist and writer M Scott Peck published the book People of the Lie, which found a common factor linking ‘evil’ behaviour. Drawing on his experience in clinical psychiatric practice as well as in the US military and government, he argued that lying needed to be given a central place in any understanding of the psychology of evil.
He found that if he confronted a parent who was abusing their child, as he sometimes had to do, they would compulsively lie. They would deny even the most conclusively damning evidence. He also found that, at the height of the war in Vietnam, when he asked government officials or military officers about the indiscriminate use of napalm they would always assert that it was someone else’s fault. Regardless of whether an individual was part of the decision-making structure or pressing the trigger to drop napalm on children, everyone claimed they were just following someone else’s orders.
In other words, he found that central to the psychology of evil is the denial of personal responsibility.
With each new lie, Brexiteers seek to re-affirm that Brexiteers are not responsible for the gargantuan mess they have created.
Lying and the evasion of personal responsibility seems today to have become epidemic. Donald Trump, the US president and a compulsive liar, has popularised the concept of “fake news” to undermine those with the temerity to try to hold him to public account. His acolytes have invented the notion of “alternative facts” to bolster the self-serving lies that Trump conjures for his gullible faithful.
This is anything but a peculiarly American phenomenon. Systematic lying is central to the Brexit political project as well. The lies told before the referendum by the leaders of the Brexit campaigns – the £350 million for the NHS; that there were no downsides to Brexit; that the trade deal the UK would conclude with the EU would be the easiest in human history – have been well documented. When these fantasies collided with hard reality, new lies were invented to paper over the cracks: everything would have been great but for the “Remoaners”; that the DUP speaks for the people of Northern Ireland; that everything would be fine if only a proper Brexiteer was actually prime minister.
With each new lie, Brexiteers seek to re-affirm that Brexiteers are not responsible for the gargantuan mess they have created. Many of these go unchallenged by either opposition politicians or much of the broadcast media. This makes it easier for them to stick.
These lies, whether told before or after the referendum, have another objective. As Churchill may have put it, they are the bodyguard of a deeper truth: that of the real purpose of Brexit.
In his book Heroic Failure, an excoriating analysis of the causes of Brexit, Fintan O’Toole identifies another book called The Sovereign Individual by William Rees-Mogg, the father of Jacob, as being particularly illuminating. In it, says O’Toole, Rees-Mogg senior espouses “an avowedly apocalyptic mess of Ayn Rand-ish prognostications, addressed quite explicitly to the super-rich”. Rees-Mogg senior wanted the ultra-rich to operate outside political boundaries, free “from all the constraints of nationality, citizenship and, of course, taxation”. This will starve nation states of tax revenue, leading to first their collapse and then to that of mass democracy itself.
When I worked in Angola in the 1990s, at the time fragmented by civil war, this sort of thing was referred to as the Somalisation of a country. There, as in Somalia before it, the breakdown in the state had contributed to the impoverishment of ordinary people while those privileged with power or wealth were able to evade or profit from the engulfing catastrophes.
For Rees-Mogg and Farage the benefits that Brexit can deliver the ultra-rich is worth every lie they tell.
Brexit, even in its hardest form, does not yet threaten to reach that depth. Nevertheless the immediate consequences of Brexit will still be consonant with Rees-Mogg senior’s dystopian ideal. For most people Brexit will mean increased economic hardship. The British manufacturing sector will be at risk of collapse under the weight of Brexit customs bureaucracy and friction-filled trade. Pressure on public finances will grow and increasing racism will take deeper root. Vital financial and human resources for public services, such as the NHS, will become more scarce and austerity will continue.
As all this happens, the ultra-rich will still profit. Brexit will protect those ultra-rich domiciled in the UK from the EU Tax Avoidance Directive, which comes into force in early 2019, and the goodies – for them – will keep on rolling. Rees-Mogg junior is a chip of the old “sovereign-individual” block, for all his claims of patriotism and recapturing the Agincourt-spirit. Hypocrisy is also a type of lying. Rees-Mogg has already established investment funds in Dublin to allow his business interests to continue to benefit from EU rules and regulations. Nigel Farage’s lies about the results of the 2016 referendum, claiming his side had lost even when he knew otherwise, allowed speculators to profit further from the collapse of Sterling. Disaster speculators can reasonably hope for new profits in 2019 if the UK crashes out of the EU. Or, as Brexiteer liars like to call it, “a managed transfer to WTO terms.”
The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, has recently started using the idea of “lying” like a Brexiteer in some of his domestic political arguments. This will bother Rees-Mogg and Farage very little. For them the benefits that Brexit can deliver the ultra-rich is worth every lie they tell, and any price the proles have to pay.
But, as lying and the evasion of personal responsibility is also cowardice, you won’t see any of that on the side of a bus.