The ‘Long Legs’ of Lies and Brexit

Dr. Wilhelm Skogstad

Lies have underpinned Brexit, leading in turn to further lies. A culture of lying has developed in British politics under Boris Johnson. Why have the lies been so successful?


A German proverb says ‘Lügen haben kurze Beine’ (‘Lies have short legs’); the English equivalent, ‘A lie never lives to be old’. They suggest that lies won’t hold for long, the truth will inevitably emerge soon. I think they reflect the belief in a good parental authority that knows right from wrong, as represented by a benign super-ego, an internal object that ensures that right will prevail. As children we trust our parents and throughout life we rely on internal figures we trust.
It may be this deep-seated belief that makes the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and ‘post truth’ so disturbing to most of us. We want to believe that our parental objects – teachers, bosses, politicians – are honest and trustworthy. As Sunstein (2021) writes: ‘Most of the time, we tend to believe other people. When they tell us things, we assume that they are telling the truth.’ And people do so, ‘even if they have excellent reason not to believe what they hear’ (p. 73).
While we are familiar with systemic deception in totalitarian states, we tend to assume that in democracies truth prevails, and although there may be some deception, facts won’t be denied for long. What has happened in recent years in such apparent beacons of democracy as the US and UK, with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and their prolific lies, is therefore deeply bewildering. Revealing the truth, like through ‘fact-checkers’, has been unable to stop them. It is as if lies did have long legs or did live to be old.
Lying in politics is not new; Hannah Arendt (1971) wrote about it half a century ago, after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the US government had lied systematically to the public and congress about the Vietnam War. She argued: ‘Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings’ (p. 4).
Yet, what is happening now, in Britain, is of a different nature and magnitude. There has been a serious decline of the value of truth in politics, most dramatically with Boris Johnson. His professional career started with lies, for which he was sacked by the Times, and continued with distortions and fabrications in his weekly column as Brussel correspondent for years. Oborne (2021) writes that in almost three decades as political reporter, he has ‘never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson. Or gets away with his deceit so easily’ (p. 18). 
Brexit, described by some as the ‘biggest act of political self-harm’, would, I think, not have been voted for by a slim majority of the British electorate if it weren’t for the ruthless use of lies and the central role that Johnson had in spreading them. While there were complex historical, political and economical reasons behind the support for Brexit, these alone would not have been sufficient. 
A particularly influential lie was placed in huge letters on the Brexit campaign bus: ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS [1] instead – Vote Leave. Let’s take back control.’ The figure was utterly misleading [2], described as ‘absurd’ by the reputable Institute of Fiscal Studies. But constantly repeated, it had a huge impact. The message was emotive and cleverly drafted, contrasting a remote EU, portrayed as greedy and wasteful, with what is ‘ours’, an NHS close to people, like one’s GP or local hospital. Everyone knew the NHS was struggling with underfunding. This had nothing to do with the EU, but with the ruthless policy of austerity. Yet now, the message suggested, everyone could do something about it and ‘take back control’.
Another influential lie was the slogan: ‘Turkey, population 76 million, is joining the EU. Vote Leave – Take Back Control.’ The impression given was that if Britain didn’t get out of the EU instantly, it would be swamped by Turks. In reality, negotiations with Turkey had stalled, with no prospect of joining in the near future, which Britain could have vetoed anyway. The massive influx of Eastern European migrants to the UK, which had caused deep resentment, seemed insufficient to stir the fear and hatred of strangers required for a Brexit vote; it needed an outright lie. 
Repeating such lies over and over again gave them a reality of their own, which no fact-checking and contradicting could prevent [3]
Why could these lies have such an impact? Why could Johnson ‘get away with his deceit so easily’? He certainly has the gift to lie in a witty, humorous, even charming way, often sensing what people want to hear. And he can convey an optimism that many find infectiousBut there is more to it. 
When asked to name an economist who backed Brexit, the prominent Brexiter Michael Gove said: ‘The people in this country have had enough of experts.’ The fact that predictions by experts are never completely accurate and may sometimes be far off, was used to dismiss all predictions, all expertise. Instead, people should ‘trust themselves’ – which implied trusting the Brexiters’ false claims. Thus, with a stroke, all warnings of serious damage through Brexit, e.g. to the economy or the Northern Ireland peace process, could be dismissed as ‘project fear’. Gove’s statement reflects a deep hatred of knowledge and expertise, ‘-K’ in Bion’s sense, and an idealisation of subjective feelings and omnipotence. 
Omnipotence was indeed fostered in the Brexit process. In the same interview Gove said Remainers were ‘underestimating Britain’s potential’. And the slogan of Johnson’s 2019 election campaign, ‘Get Brexit done – Unleash Britain’s potential’ suggested that on its own, ‘freed of the shackles of the EU’, Britain would rise to greatness (like in the past, with the British Empire). Brexit thus offered an omnipotent solution to serious problems, e.g. of poverty and inequality, which were homegrown and hugely exacerbated by the policy of austerity of the very party that now promoted Brexit. 
The idealisation of subjectivity has developed over decades. While psychoanalysis emphasizes the significance of the internal world in our perception of the external world, it fosters the capacity to differentiate between internal and external reality. Yet, increasingly what matters most are subjective feelings. Linking this ‘culture of narcissism’ with the rise of postmodernism, Kakutani (2018) writes: ‘With this embrace of subjectivity came the diminution of objective truth: the celebration of opinion over knowledge, feelings over facts’ (p. 63). And Nichols (2017) notes that a ‘positive hostility’ to knowledge has led to the ‘insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other’ (p. 20).
This development has been accelerated through social media. They tend to create loops, where one’s beliefs are constantly confirmed and reinforced, while contradicting realities don’t need to be engaged with. Increasingly they have been used to deliberately spread misinformation, e.g. to influence elections, sometimes using clever techniques to adapt messages to particular groups. In a culture of narcissism, with its idealisation of subjectivity and hostility to knowledge, people are more susceptible to lies.
The hatred of knowledge and expertise is reflected in the way political argument has, with Johnson, descended into ‘sloganeering’ (Oborne, 2021). Slogans like ‘Take back control’, ‘get Brexit done’, ‘project fear’ were endlessly repeated, drowning out any real political discussion. 
Johnson has been presenting himself as the man who can achieve what others won’t, because they are too timid or full of doubts. Brushing aside all complicated details, he would offer simple solutions, with conviction and optimism, as if he had a magic bullet. In doing so, I think he taps into two tendencies that are present in most of us. 
First, the hatred of pain and anxiety. The Brexit negotiations under Theresa May revealed how extremely complicated the issues were, and that in contrast to the promises, any deal would bring with it severe costs and losses. Accepting that would have been painful and humiliating, and the agonizing struggle in parliament reflected that. In this situation, Johnson created the illusion that he would cut through all that and ‘get Brexit done’, with no costs or losses. Compromising was portrayed as ‘surrender’ and contemptible weakness, whereas with strength and courage, the promised painless deal was achievable. 
Second, the wish to rid ourselves of our super-ego. Johnson’s expression often conveys that he himself doesn’t take seriously what he says. When lies are found out, he seems unperturbed by shame or guilt, he repeats the lies or finds new ones. He creates an image that he ‘can say or do anything without suffering the consequences’ (Oborne, 2021, p. 151). There is something about the capacity to rid oneself of shame and guilt that many may admire and identify with.
Steiner (1993) describes two types of evading reality: one by turning a blind eye, which involves simultaneously knowing and not knowing the truth, the other by retreating from truth into omnipotence, where reality can be treated with contempt, without shame or guilt. Johnson indeed shows utter contempt for the truth, and shameless omnipotence. That cannot be said of those taken in by his lies. Their response may be more like turning a blind eye. Faced with the disturbing reality emerging from the Brexit negotiations, accepting that would have felt too humiliating. Instead, Johnson offered a painless and cost-free way out of insurmountable difficulties.
Before Johnson, political lying was widely used under Tony Blair. Oborne (2005) argues that this was done because it was deemed necessary for the greater good. Yet, ‘a politician who deceives in order to obtain a higher good … is stealing the moral autonomy, and the right to choose, of the voter’ (p. 224). In justifying his decision to go to war in Iraq, Blair said: ‘I only know what I believe.’ This captures the underlying omnipotence: the leader’s belief is sufficient argument for war, justifying lies and distortions to make the case for it. The disastrous consequences of the Iraq war show how dangerous that is.
Johnson’s lies arise from a very different motive. There is no higher moral aim, only narcissistic self-interest: to gain admiration, votes, money, to escape difficulties that previous lies have created, and to evade responsibility and guilt. 
Whatever the motive, political lying perverts the democratic culture, it is ‘an attack on civil society’; instead of being about ‘seeking a common solution to the problems that affect us all, … [it] becomes an exercise in manipulation, intrigue and brutal power’ (Oborne, 2005, p. 227).
A particularly perverse form of deceit happened before the 2019 election. During the televised leaders debate, the Conservative Party Headquarter’s Twitter account was renamed ‘factcheckUK’ and made to resemble a factchecking account. That way misinformation could be spread under the guise of truth-seeking. 
The lies underpinning Brexit created new lies when hitting reality. For example, the lie that Brexit would have no serious consequences for Northern Ireland, whose peace was built on Ireland and UK being under one roof, hit the reality that there was no solution without a border, either on the island of Ireland or between NI and Britain. But Johnson lied, there would be no border with his deal. When border checks and complicated forms did become reality, he threatened to pull out of the Northern Ireland Protocol he had himself signed.
Therefore, alongside lying, there is trashing of whatever could counter the lies. Whether unlawfully suspending parliament to stop its control of the Brexit process, expelling Tory MPs who voted against the government to prevent a no-deal-Brexit, or breaking international law, there is an attack on structures and laws that get in the way of omnipotence. Steiner (1993) writes that it is ‘the lack of shame which makes these alliances with omnipotent figures so dangerous since normal restraints on destructiveness and cruelty are rendered inoperative’ (p. 130). These ‘normal restraints’, internally the super-ego, in politics our laws and democratic structures, are increasingly being eroded through this perverse culture of mendacity.
[1] The National Health Service.
[2] The gross membership fee in 2015 was £17.8bn (£342m/week). However, this was never paid, as it was reduced to £12.9bn by the ‘rebate’. At the same time, the EU paid £5.8bn into the UK (public bodies, farmers, private sector, research programmes), so that the net amount was £7.1bn (£136m/week). Even that amount could have never been spent on the NHS, as the UK would, after Brexit, have to pay themselves for research, farmers, poorer regions etc. (Henley, 2016).
[3] A phenomenon called ‘Illusory Truth Effect’.

Arendt, H. (1971). Lying in politics. Reflections on the Pentagon Papers. In H. Arendt, Crises of the Republic, pp. 2-46. New York: Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company.
Henley, J. (2016). Why Vote Leave’s £350m weekly EU cost claim is wrong. The Guardian, 10 June 2016.
Kakutani, M. (2018). The Death of Truth. London: William Collins.
Nichols, T. (2017). The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.
Oborne, P. (2005). The Rise of Political Lying. London: The Free Press.
Oborne, P (2021). The Assault on Truth. Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism. London: Simon & Schuster.
Sunstein, C.R. (2021). Liars. Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception. New York: Oxford University Press. 
Steiner, J. (1993). Psychic Retreats. Pathological Organizations in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. London: Routledge.