The god that failed

Blind belief in Brexit theology is slowly lifting

Gavin Esler

In August 2018, as Theresa May’s government tried to make sense of her insight that “Brexit means Brexit”, a leading Brexit fundamentalist, Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns, tweeted: “The liberal elite will never understand why so many people voted for #Brexit. For too long people have been sneered at for loving our country & believing that we can prosper beyond the EU borders.

I love our Country, our Queen, our people & truly believe in Global Britain.” But Brexit doubts grew and a few months later Jenkyns insisted the only answer was more faith: “Just believe in honouring the referendum result.” 

Religious education classes in my Edinburgh schooldays were taught by a good-humoured Church of Scotland minister. He loathed the idea faith meant “just believe”. He said the phrase was purely social control, really meaning “don’t think for yourself”.

He challenged his classes with “theodicy,” a problem like this: if God is good, all-powerful, and created everything, why does evil exist? How can you “just believe” when bad things happen? During the past six years of the Conservative party psychodrama, bad things happened repeatedly because Brexit is Britain’s political theodicy problem. If, as Jenkyns insists, Brexit is good, and Britain is great, why is everything such a mess?

Why, as I write this on the Kent coast, are miles of lorries queuing at Dover because of Brexit bureaucracy? Why do government ministers suggest the massive Brexit disruptions to our lives are really caused by coronavirus? The pandemic is everywhere (CLUE: the word “pan-demic”) yet serious disruption to everything from supermarket supplies to fruit picking and exports is Brexit’s uniquely British purgatory.

For Jenkyns, like St Augustine, faith precedes understanding: fides querens intellectum. Or St Anselm – neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam – “I don’t seek understanding in order to believe. I believe in order to understand”. Yet in the past year of Brexit reality, even the faithful are confronted by a heretical truth. Brexit is not “done”. Brexit is the God that failed.


At 2300hrs on 31 January 2020 the word became flesh when Brexit began. But then almost as soon as the deal negotiated by David Frost and pronounced “excellent” came into force it started to fall apart.

Friends in Belfast could not import garden plants from English growers without encountering new Brexit bureaucracies. A geriatric gunboat was sent to the Channel Islands to scare French fishermen. Parcels between the UK and EU led to form-filling and new costs often greater than the value of the parcel.

My Belfast friends worried about renewed violence. It happened. Two months ago I met former loyalist paramilitaries in west Belfast. They predict “young lads” will turn to more violence in 2022.  Another friend, a London wine importer, tells me if any pallet of wine in a shipping container has the wrong paperwork, the entire container sits at the docks until someone ticks the right boxes.

Employing box tickers is one of the few growth “opportunities” for Boris Johnson’s “Brexit Opportunities Unit”, although there are others. We have the opportunity to be poorer, shrinking UK GDP by 4%; the opportunity for nationalists in Scotland to escape the lies and condescension from Downing Street and push for independence and the opportunity for wealthy pro-Brexit newspaper proprietors (not resident in the UK for tax purposes) to insist that Brexit would be “a Titanic success” if those ghastly Europeans only did as they were told. As Boris Johnson assured us in July 2019: “Our mission is to deliver Brexit… for the purpose of uniting and re-energizing our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth.” 

In 2022, how is the re-energized, united, greatest-place-on-earth Brexit Britain going for you? 


Students of politics learn that the British system – unlike that of lesser nations – brings stable government. Angela Merkel was German Chancellor for 16 years. Since the Brexit vote Britain has endured three failed Conservative prime ministers in six years. A fourth will eventually inherit the Brexit-deranged Conservative party.

David Cameron created Brexit to destroy UKIP. But instead UKIP’s only policy destroyed Cameron. Theresa May tried reasonable damage limitation. She failed because Tory Brexit Believers don’t do reasonable.

They do “just believe”. They agitated to have a deceitful clown as prime minister because Boris Johnson saw Brexit not as a tricky policy to be delivered but as a ladder into Downing Street where inconvenient real-world details could be sprayed with his gloss of strategic bluster and lies.

From extra millions for the NHS to the easiest trade deals in history and “the greatest place on earth”, Johnson’s leadership marks the moment when traditional Conservative “conservatism” – gradual change based on national self-interest – died.

Lying on Brexit, however, went unpunished until the little lies about Downing Street parties and coronavirus surfaced. Then Johnson’s martyrdom began. The same Conservative party members who produced three failed prime ministers in a row have the chance to make it four.

Polls say they favour Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the emissary for “Global Britain” described recently by the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating as “demented”. For some that will not be a criticism, rather a qualification.   


A Perspective poll last month showed support for a fresh Brexit vote is growing. So is intolerance of government lies and incompetence. Boris Johnson’s whinge that “nobody” told him a boozy party in his garden broke his own coronavirus rules became part of a pattern of increasing public disbelief.

Presumably “nobody” told Johnson throwing 100 years of Ulster unionism into the Irish Sea would cause difficulties; “nobody” mentioned a trade deal with an Irish American president would never happen; “nobody” pointed out that 63% of workers for the British Meat Processors Association and almost all in the British Summer Fruits Association were from the EU27 – as were 90% of vets in British slaughterhouses – and if these key EU27 workers returned home there’d be enormous difficulties for Brexit Britain. 

“Nobody” predicted that by last summer millions of commercially-grown flowers destined for florists would be left unpicked, vegetables would rot in fields or that Brexit would make unsellable much of the three quarters of Scotland’s seafood exports which go to the EU. Shipments were destroyed. And “nobody” could have predicted that more than a million UK citizens currently living in Europe now face endless new problems because “nobody” is to blame for the Brexit fiasco. 

But a new Brexit catechism is emerging. Facts matter. Brexit isn’t “done”. You can’t have cake and eat it – especially if the cake is stuck in a truck in Calais. Above all, what is good for Brexit evangelicals in the Conservative party isn’t good for the country.

Once that catechism is understood, the Brexit delusion will slowly lift, perhaps even before Theresa May’s proposed “Festival of Brexit” later this year. Based on the 1951 Festival of Britain, Mrs May wanted “a once-in-a-generation celebration” to mark Brexit as a “moment of national renewal”.

The canny organisers, recognising there’s nothing Brexity to celebrate, call the festival “Unboxed” and Brexit is now the love that dare not speak its name. The £120 million not-Brexit festival features “national renewal” in a decommissioned offshore North Sea platform, a celebration of British weather and the largest grow-your-own food project of modern times.

We may, therefore, “just believe” that we British are Brexit’s chosen people – chosen to celebrate food rotting in our fields and endless new bureaucracies, chosen to be poorer, to accept leaders who lie, and to be pitied as we dig for Brexit victory.

In the hit movie Don’t Look Up humanity faces annihilation by collision with an asteroid. It can be stopped if we recognise imminent danger, but post-Trump politicians tell Americans “Don’t look up” and everything will be fine.

Brexit’s “don’t look up” is Jenkyns’ “just believe”, or what the French call mauvaise foi. Bad faith is a concept based on deceit, in which individuals act inauthentically because they yield to societal pressure to adopt false values.

We witness inauthenticity weekly at Prime Minister’s Questions, or on TV shows in which Brexit fundamentalists pretend things are fine provided you don’t look up and notice how truly crap Brexit actually is. My Church of Scotland teacher correctly understood that “just believe” is social control by those in power who don’t want you to think. He then added that since people do think, when they are cheated what they think about is called a Reformation.

Gavin Esler is the author of “Brexit Without the Bullshit” (2019) and most recently “How Britain Ends”

Current Affairs

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Brian Robinson (Dr)
    February 8, 2022 4:07 pm

    I like that existentialist touch near the end. Brexit as bad faith inauthenticity, exactly. Sartre would have recognised that.

    Reply
  • The central theme that the whole country is in a spiral of decline due to Brexit is far too simplistic. It is also rather undermined by the current 7.5% growth rate. Despite Brexit problems, burgeoning energy prices and COVID lockdowns, the economy is back to pre COVID levels and averaging with other G8 countries. Brexit was always going to be messy because so many of the foreign and domestic stakeholders were so utterly opposed to it happening and were always going to make the transition difficult, presumably to make their point. In reality, the benefits of Brexit will be mixed and will be become more apparent over long-term as institutions bed into the idea and local opposition subsides.

    Reply
    • So just ‘believe’ for a bit longer eh Jeremy? I think you’ve just proved Gavin’s point, as the central theme seems to have passed you by…

      Reply
    • “Burgeoning energy prices” – that’ s a nice way to put it. The energy price hike is Thatcher’s privatisation coming home to roost, and it will destroy many lives in the next couple of years. And lets not pretend the prices will return to where they were. There is a cost of living crisis on top of the seemingly permanent crisis we’ve been in since 2008. And in the midst of that the Tories create another crisis. But never mind: Rees-Mogg can count his billions in Dublin while saying post-Brexit UK may get on its feet again in around 50 years. And people think Brexit was “for” them, the people!

      Reply

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