Mi stato mentale
Looking forward for a look back --- Britain’s March of Folly
IT’S never too early to write history. So, let’s write some. Let’s write it about Britain, in advance, and with especial reference to the historian Barbara Tuchman and her book, written in 1984 (a year redolent of menace), The March Of Folly.
Herewith the opening paragraph: "A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
Why did the Trojans drag that damned horse through their gates? Why did Montezuma persist in believing Cortez might be Quezalcoatl returned from disgrace across the eastern sea? Why did George III stick it to the American colonists? Why did Napoleon march to Moscow? Why did the French decide the Germans would never use their reserves to outflank them through Belgium? Why did Americans persist in Vietnam, a war their leaders knew was unwinnable? And why (as this piece will ask) is Britain persisting with Brexit?
“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception (she writes), is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” And she defines for types of misgovernment: “1) tyranny or oppression… 2) excessive ambition… 3) incompetence or decadence… and 4) folly or perversity... the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.”
Folly has three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time; a feasible alternative must have been available; and the policy in question must be that of a group, not an individual ruler and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.
Brexit, as a ‘march of folly’, appears to tick all the boxes.
So, let’s write some history. It’s 2030. Several important things have happened. The European project, weakened by Britain’s withdrawal, has seriously unravelled; the immigration crisis during 2012-2020, the resurgence of right-wing movements, a euro debt crisis that has driven some countries to suspend their membership of the common currency and revert to the lira or the schilling, and growing dissatisfaction with the Union among eastern governments, has caused a revolt against Brussels. Ethno-sectarian tension has flared again in the Balkans. Foreigners are being held in detention camps. Xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment have led, in the eastern countries, to a sustained crackdown on human rights. Crime, hate crime, and incidents of terrorism have risen sharply. Russia has reasserted its influence in Eastern Europe, especially among the larger neighbouring states. America has left NATO. Europe’s Western democracies have had no choice but establish their own defence pacts and increase defence spending, putting increased pressure on the social contracts of member states, whose economies are also struggling because of the euro crisis.
Britain should be feeling smug, after all, it left the European Union in 2021. But it’s not. The impact on the City, engine of the economy, was gradual but substantial as trillions of dollar and euro transactions drifted over time to Frankfurt and other European bourses. The immigration which sustained its growth before Brexit has slowed sharply, causing crises in medical care and agriculture, and also affected the hospitality industry - fitting in a way because England and Wales in particular are simply no longer that hospitable anyway. The early Twenties saw sustained disruption to the flow of goods between Britain and the Continent and an increase in smuggling has caused the British fiscus billions in lost revenue. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in manufacturing as foreign investment in that part of the economy turned down and areas of the Midlands have been thrust backwards - a modern equivalent of the northern and Welsh pit closures of forty years before. And the problems of Europe have forced the government to become ever more restrictive of movement across the Channel as Britain has become steadily more closed as a society, and further exacerbated xenophobia racial tensions within the country. All told, Britain is struggling economically and socially and, having withdrawn from Europe, is unable to contribute politically and materially to the stabilisation of its closest neighbour, on which it remains dependent. Militarily, its decline has continued; it is no longer regarded as a first-tier power. The special relationship with America was shattered by President Trump and the Commonwealth dismisses Britain as no longer of any value to its own relationships with Europe. Worse, the Union has disintegrated: Scotland and Northern Ireland have voted with their feet and left the United Kingdom, the former succeeding in fast-tracking membership of the European Union, causing a replay of the ‘magic border control’ issue with Ireland, and the latter voting to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
So much for the history. And ‘history is bunk’ anyway, but let’s look at those criteria again.
Was Brexit conceived of as counter-productive in its own time? Yes - across the board. The weight of opinion in commerce and industry was against it. Almost half the population was against it at the outset and that number grew to a majority as facts became known and the economic and social damage began to be felt and the experts who advised against it and had been scoffed at by those advancing the policy, were increasingly seen to have been proved right. Even within the government which drove it through, there was dissent but it was stifled by fear that the government would lose power and individuals would be punished by their parties and pro-Brexit voters. And for the same reason, the leading opposition party, riven by its own fantasy of a socialist resurgence - much as Brexiteers within the government were inspired by the equivalent fantasy of a nationalist resurgence - failed to challenge the policy and bring down the government, though it was weak and dependent on a small, ultra-conservative party in Northern Ireland. In the international community, only Russia and the Trump administration in America applauded, but never supported Brexit materially through, for example advantageous trade and security deals.
Was a feasible alternative available? Yes, Britain could have remained in the Union - not accepting the status quo, of course - there was plenty that needed fixing - but to argue firmly with Brussels and make common cause with the East European states against overreach and pressure for ever-closer union - bearing in mind that on significant issues, Britain’s power of veto would always serve to block treaty amendments it regarded as unwise or unacceptable. Its existing trade and security arrangements would have remained in place, strengthening both itself and the Union, and its political leverage would only have increased as Europe’s challenges intensified. Britain would have become more, rather than less, powerful.
Finally, was the Brexit policy that of a group, not an individual ruler, and did it persist beyond any one political lifetime? Indeed. This had been going on since the Seventies when the first millionaire Brexiteer, Sir James Goldsmith, founded the Referendum Party, seeking a vote on continued membership. Brexit was the conception not of a single party per se but of a power faction within British politics that had always despised Britain’s membership as a derogation of national sovereignty. That sentiment ran in parallel with and was strengthened by a powerful stream of populist opinion rooted in declining living standards, resentment of London, anti-immigrationism, and a (not wholly unjustified) contempt for the political class, itself mirroring a global trend towards the rejection of authority, elites and privilege. The Brexit vote in 2016, the fulcrum on which Britain heaved sentiment into policy, was itself the moment at which an entire ‘type’ within the nation’s composition, those who felt ‘out’ - out of power, out of sight, out of the reckoning, out of luck; were they either politicians or citizens - could make the case for voting ‘out’ and in so doing transform a generalised mood of disaffection into a blow against everything they felt had conspired to keep, or push, them out. In that hour, and in the absence of an opportunity for some more profound domestic outlet for their grievance, they fixed on the target raised from the rifle butts by the Brexiteers.
We’ve killed a king, beaten off the French, hung on against the Germans (1940 and1966), invented industry and capitalism, covered the world in pink and made our language its lingua franca (a contradiction in terms but there it is). We’ve made some powerful history. But Brexit, now, is Britain’s March of Folly - as defined! History will show that those who led it - May, Johnson, Gove, Davies, Fox, Rees-Mogg, Corbyn, and all those who saw advantage of going along with it - were gone soon enough, comforted in their ignominious retirement by parliamentary pensions and private fortunes. For the rest of us, it will be death by a thousand cuts.
In the good old days, we’d have stuck heads on pikes.
It is already apparent that Brexit is the ultimate folly for the British. Who needs enemies when they have themselves?