Richard North, 10/08/2020  

In revising The Great Deception, the relentless work has got me to the point that I am tired to the core, the sort of tiredness where, after you get up after a good night's sleep, you are still tired.

But it isn't the writing, per se, that's doing the damage. It's the toil of dredging through the sludge of ill-informed reporting, trying to distil some sense of what is happening from the froth of ignorance and prejudice.

On reflection, it's not surprising that the politicians so often don't know what they are talking about. Most of them get much of their information from the media, which means that what they are mostly doing is choosing their sources of misinformation.

With that in mind, I was somewhat entertained by a report from Deutsche Welle in 2011, which, rather imperfectly, looks at the reference to the German Constitutional Court of German plans to participate in the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – which it misnames the "European Stability Fund".

For the moment, the details are not important, other than to observe that, in approving German participation, the Court required greater participation of the parliament, obliged the government to get the approval of the parliamentary budgetary committee before funds were disbursed.

But what is of particular interest here is the comment of Piotr Kaczynski of the Centre for European Policy Studies. He agreed that the ruling would make the overall approval process "more cumbersome", but conceded that there could be an upside.

"The cost for making things harder", he said, "is that it's more legitimate. If you include the national parliament in these decisions then it should be more legitimate". He thus confirms what we all know to be true, that democracy is a messy process.

There's also a cynical side to it. "Involvement of the parliament is a cushion vis-a-vis complaints about the process", Kaczynski says. In other words, if you go through the "democratic" motions, it's harder for people to complain about the outcomes.

The "money quotes", though, are where Kaczynski warns that this added layer of decision-making doesn't automatically mean that the risk factors will be reduced. "The knowledge is scattered, so the parliamentarians' knowledge is scattered", he says.

"Of course you do not have access to all the information that is available in other states", he adds. "It applies equally to the national government and to the national parliament. Whatever decisions are to be taken by the government are only based on partial truths. As such, this is the limitation".

And there's the rub. Any decision-making, by and large, is going to be a function of the information available. Where access is limited – for whatever reason – the quality of decision-making may well be reduced.

I think, though, that much of the problem rests not only with the fact that "knowledge is scattered", thus reducing the ability to evaluate matters and reach reasoned conclusions, but with self-imposed filters which screen out much of the available information, creating those "partial truths" which distort perceptions.

For today, we could not have a better example of this phenomenon than in two contrasting pieces – both Brexit-related – one an editorial in The Guardian, the other a supposedly factual report in The Daily Telegraph.

As to the Guardian, it is taking a view on "Brexit bureaucracy", lamenting that it is "tied up in red tape". In a highly pessimistic view, it suggests that businesses already struggling with the fallout from Covid-19 "will be forced to deal with a mountain of new bureaucracy in the middle of a deep recession".

I wish I could dispute what the paper says, but find myself reluctantly agreeing with much of it – reluctant because I wish that it wasn't true. The one point I would argue with is the assertion that "the theological demands of Brexit continue to trump all practical considerations".

The problem here is the generic use of the term "Brexit". It is not Brexit which is that cause of the problems. It is this government's crass and wholly inadequate version of it. With that proviso, one could not deny that, "It is an irresponsible and reckless way to govern a country", as the Guardian avers.

When we turn to the Telegraph, there we see the headline: "Knives are out for a Withdrawal Agreement MPs fear is not worth the paper it's written on". The sub-heading repeats the sentiment with the legend: "Mounting disquiet among Leave-supporting Members that the agreement still isn’t worth the paper it is written on".

As one might expect of the Telegraph, the distortions are full-frontal, right from the very start, with prime minister Johnson credited with "succeeded in ditching the Irish backstop and getting his Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament against all the odds".

This, one might recall, was originally the precursor to May's agreement – which she rejected as "a deal that no British prime minister could accept". Yet Johnson bought into a version of it which turned the backstop into a permanent "frontstop", effectively locking the UK into a "wet" border in the Irish Sea in perpetuity.

Now, as the Guardian rightly points out, as we get closer to the end of the transition period, the full implications of Johnson's catastrophic intervention are becoming increasingly clear. And this has "senior Brexiteers" whingeing about the inevitable "creation of a border in the Irish Sea with customs and regulatory checks on goods crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland".

Prominent amongst the naysayers is Iain Duncan Smith who, when discussing the many downsides of Johnson's "fantastic" deal, admits: "Everyone knew this stuff before". He asserts that the "reason we voted for it is because we needed to be out of the EU in order to negotiate successfully as a sovereign nation after 31 January".

But, despite the UK being locked into what is an international treaty – which Duncan Smith and his fellow-travellers in the ERG voted for – the man wants the British negotiators "to block parts of it off".

When it comes to the prospects of seeing change, though, we see the self-imposed filters drop in. Quoting an anonymous "Tory", writer Camilla Tominey – who styles herself "associate editor" - tells us "Germany needs a trade deal with Britain for its manufacturing and France needs it for its argi-produce (sic), so the UK is in a very strong position to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement".

This, of course, is in the land of the fayries, bringing us right back to the archetypal Tory myth that "they need us more than we need them", tempered by the fiction that Germany (and now France) are going to intervene at the last minute to deliver a settlement which meets with the expectations of the Brexiteers.

Actually, to dismiss this as utter tosh would be a kindness, but here we have what was once a serious national newspaper giving houseroom to this sort of drivel. The chances of the EU reopening the Withdrawal Agreement are precisely nil, and it is only in the fantasies of the Brexiteers that they could be any different.

Yet, when you get this sort of report cluttering the media, added to hundreds more over the years, sorting through the "first version of history" becomes more than a little tiresome. Add the technical errors, and all the many misunderstandings and distortions, and it is a wonder that any reliable history gets written at all.

Certainly, when I add my own errors, the inevitable selection bias and succumb to the pressure to precis the accounts of events, the attempt seems more than a little precarious. My one consolation is that, even in the latest official history of Britain and the European Community (volume II) – which has the luxury of covering a mere 13 years in 668 pages – there are errors.

In that respect, there probably isn't such a thing as the absolute truth. There are only partial truths. Some, though, are more partial than others.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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