A Taste of Their Own Medicine: the Politicians Who Robbed Iranians and Libyans Fear the Same for Brexit Britain

Photograph Source: Mайкл Гиммельфарб – Public Domain

As part of then-Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May’s supposed preparations for a no-deal Brexit, the government asked different departments of the UK’s civil service, including those responsible for food, agriculture, medicine, and chemicals, to come up with impact assessments. The worst-case scenarios (not leaked or released at the time of writing) were codenamed Black Swan. Michael Gove, the future Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (basically the deputy PM), dismissed Operation Black Swan as a “film about a ballet dancer” and even denied that it is a government document.

Despite government claims to the contrary; Operation Yellowhammer was not a worst-case scenario but contingency plans for likely outcomes of a no-deal Brexit. May’s Yellowhammer documents were leaked to the Mail on Sunday and warned of Britain’s vulnerability to chemical supplies for water purification.

The updated Yellowhammer documents prepared for the incoming Johnson government were also leaked, in this instance to the Sunday Times. Among other things, the documents note that Britain’s importation of packaged medicaments could be severely disrupted by border queues in the event of a no-deal Brexit, particularly where refrigerated medicines are concerned. It also notes the potential unavailability of foods and food price increases. The documents expose the flaws in the corporate, neoliberal globalized order that robs nations of their self-reliance.

But the very politicians now voting to stop a no-deal Brexit in order to prevent this kind of potentially dangerous disruption are the same who supported the infliction of similar pain on other, more vulnerable countries. The first was Libya in 2011. Parliament’s own inquiry into the bombing (led by the US as part of NATO’s mission) found that Britain’s involvement was based on erroneous intelligence.


The bombing also appeared to be a violation of international law, as it violated UN Security Council Resolution 1973. UNSCR 1973 allowed states to use “all necessary measures … to protect civilians” from Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi. But the British Parliamentary report later acknowledged that civilians were not actually in danger. UNSCR 1973 also invokes Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which does not authorize military intervention in other states, but rather, allows the use of military operations to enforce actions short of invasion; for example, international blockades.

At the time, Dominic Grieve–now one of the politicians trying to stop a no-deal Brexit–was PM David Cameron’s Attorney General. Grieve’s job was to provide legal advice to the Cameron government on the Libya bombing. But the government refused to release Grieve’s advice in full. This suggests that Grieve advised that bombing Libya could constitute a war crime. If so, this could make Grieve himself complicit in war crimes. In addition, Grieve voted for the bombing in March 2011.

Another Parliamentary inquiry into the bombing states: “[we] respect the decision not to publish the advice [by Grieve] in full but are disappointed that the Prime Minister [Cameron] felt unable to share the advice with us on a private and confidential basis as this would have enabled us to scrutinise the operation in Libya more effectively.”

In 2018, with Britons still obsessed with Brexit, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization reminded people of the consequences of NATO’s actions, including the ongoing civil war trigged by the bombing in 2011: “the crisis has exacerbated pre-existing challenges associated with agricultural production in Libya, including water scarcity, animal and plant diseases, desertification and labour shortages.”

This makes the disruption envisaged by Yellowhammer look small by comparison. (Ironically, in December 2018, when the Labour opposition brought a motion to force Theresa May’s Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, to release his legal advice on May’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Grieve—who is now trying to stop a no-deal and get the Yellowhammer and prorogation communiqués published–told Parliament: “the Law Officers’ advice should not be published because it undermines the ability to provide proper confidential advice to Government.”)


Let’s also consider the case of Iran. Under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to enrich uranium for civilian energy. The US and EU, including Britain, accuse Iran of wanting to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapons programme. But successive reports of UN International Atomic Energy Agency find no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme. In order to force Iran into agreeing to a uranium enrichment limitation deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)), the US and EU imposed sanctions on Iran.

But the sanctions led to the kind of effects on Iran feared by those who now want to stop a no-deal Brexit in the UK. The science journal Nature reported that “A tightening of already draconian international economic sanctions against Iran is causing serious shortages of certain drugs, vaccines and other key medical supplies in the country, medical researchers and public-health officials are warning.”

Britain’s then-Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, told the Iranians that unless their government was compelled by popular pressure to agree to what became the JCPOA, “We can definitely make the pain much greater.” This appears to have been a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit collective punishments.

Under May and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hammond was aware of the Yellowhammer documents and now, having been sacked by Boris Johnson, is serving Parliament an independent MP trying to stop a no-deal Brexit, fearing that the same “pain” that he helped to inflicted on Iran could happen to Britons in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU.


These examples show that the very politicians who now fear the dire impacts of a no-deal Brexit for Britain are the same who were part of the political machinery that inflicted similar misery on poor, vulnerable populations. Nobody in British media even notices. The Yellowhammer documents also remind us that the real enemies of people are their governments; in this case an explicitly reckless one willing to harm its population for the sake of political survival.


T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).