Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Bamboozled Britain dishes out Brexit blame

London strategises gormlessness to avoid taking responsibility for its actions

If Brexit is so wonderful, why does anyone have to be blamed for its consequences? Because performative victimhood has always been at its heart. One thing has never, ever, been in doubt: it would all be someone else's fault. The very things that Britain demanded and negotiated would be reconfigured as the perverse malignity of foreigners – the Irish, the French, the EU in general.

In May 2013, a British newspaper columnist wrote that “If we left the EU . . . we would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by ‘Bwussels’ (sic), but by chronic British short-termism . . . a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”

Thus wrote that great enemy of easy gratification, Boris Johnson. He was inadvertently predicting the very dilemma that Brexit would create for British, and indirectly for Irish, politics: what do you do when “Bwussels” can no longer be blamed?

The short-term answer is: blame it anyway. For both the Tories and the DUP, the habit is too deeply ingrained to be broken. The Northern Ireland protocol, which they created, is all the fault of Dublin and Brussels.


It is hard, admittedly, to figure out how much of the current discourse about the protocol among the Brexiteers is rooted in genuine ignorance and how much is a cynical pretence not to know what it meant.

The first possibility can never be discounted. I was watching last week's appearance before a House of Commons committee of an unelected bureaucrat of the kind that Brexit was meant to overthrow. Lord Frost, never elected to anything, has been appointed Lord Brexit.

The part of his evidence that attracted attention was his tragicomic announcement that the British government is seeking an outside expert to help it identify the benefits of Brexit. A bit late, no? But there was a moment that was even more gobsmacking.

Sincere witlessness

A Tory MP, Richard Drax (aka Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax), actually asked Frost this question: "How are you getting on with bilateral agreements with other EU members? . . . Are you having any success in those?"

Frost seemed embarrassed by the apparent belief of an MP that EU member states could make their own deals with the UK, so he just waffled that “I would say there is some way to go in that.”

Drax then said this: “Oh dear. Actually, part of my question was whether individual EU states were able to do bilateral agreements. I think you are hinting that perhaps they cannot with Big Brother sitting on their shoulder. That is a shame, but hopefully in the months and years ahead that will disappear – I am sure it will under your leadership, Lord Frost.” So genuine, unaffected, sincere witlessness cannot be ruled out.

There are fishermen who voted for Brexit now genuinely stunned to find that a consignment of shellfish being sent across the Channel needs health certificates in three languages. There are pensioners who voted for Brexit who cannot understand why they can’t go and live in Spain or France without having to fill out bloody forms.

This kind of ignorance is understandable. Brits have been told for decades that “red tape” was all the fault of “Bwussels”. The truth that Brexit means vastly more of it does not compute.

But there is also fake ignorance, a faux naivety being performed by Frost and Johnson. Normally, senior political figures would be ashamed to claim that they did not understand a treaty they negotiated, signed and hailed as a triumph.

Wily foreigners

Not this time. There is a strategic deployment of gormlessness to avoid the even worse option: taking responsibility for their own actions.

To keep alive the idea that someone else is to blame, there has to be a story of artless, innocent Britain bamboozled into signing things it did not understand. In this narrative, world-beating Great Britain becomes a guileless ingenue taken advantage of by wily foreigners.

Thus, as Frost told the Commons committee, the EU “seems to want to treat goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in the same way as the arrival of a vast Chinese container ship at Rotterdam. We did not anticipate this when we agreed the protocol.”

This is not ignorance: pleading stupidity is deliberately disingenuous. The British government’s own explanatory note on the deal in December 2019 states: “Any processes normally required on goods entering the EU will be implemented at the Northern Ireland/rest of world border.”

The British sense of being deeply wronged is always marked by the obsessive return to the second World War. Sure enough, last week, counsel for the unionist parties in Northern Ireland claimed in court that the operation of the protocol “can be likened to the position of the Vichy regime which was relied on to do the bidding of the occupiers”.

The Nazis made us sign the protocol. Makes a change, I suppose, from the Irish. But the bad news is that this stuff is not going to go away because it is rooted in the deepest emotion of Brexit: self-pity. It is all about imagining Britain as a victim. It is, of course – not of “Bwussels”, but of its own home-grown delusions and deceptions.