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The handling of Brexit is the surest example of folly imaginable

Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott from Queen Mary's School of Law has written an opinion piece for Prospect Magazine in which she assess the UK's government's approach to the Brexit negotiations. Is the lesson only to be learned once it is too late? 

Published on:
Alarm clock with the colours of the EU flag and one UK star representing the countdown to Brexit.
Alarm clock with the colours of the EU flag and one UK star representing the countdown to Brexit.

In 1984, the celebrated American historian, Barbara Tuchman, wrote a book entitled The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam. In this work, Tuchman asks why governing classes have (throughout history) persisted in policies contrary to their country’s self-interest, even when those policies were identified at the time as foolish and counter-productive, and sensible alternatives were clearly available. Such behaviour she defines as “folly.” I believe the handling of Brexit constitutes “folly” as Tuchman uses the word.

Today, prime minister Theresa May persists with her Brexit conduct, despite warnings from even her own government forecasts that any form of Brexit will make Britain economically worse off. She insists the only alternative to her deal (a deal so staggeringly unpopular to parliament that the government suffered the biggest defeat ever in modern times) is “no deal,” which is increasingly portrayed as an Armageddon like event. What government knowingly pursues a policy that even its own forecasts reveal to be bad for the country? As Tuchman suggests, “If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational, then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly.”

Folly has its day

There are myriad examples of why the government’s Brexit strategy constitutes “folly.” The original folly was to hold the EU referendum with no clear strategy as to what would follow in the event of a Leave vote, a folly unmitigated by government handling since. There have been many analyses which show Britain will be poorer under any form of Brexit, as compared with staying in the EU, while under WTO rules British exports to the EU would face tariffs of £6bn (roughly two thirds of Britain’s current net EU budget contribution).

Imports will also be affected, increasing the cost of living. Britain has already lost billions in investment since the Brexit vote, and there is no evidence that our infrastructure could cope with a sudden shift to WTO trading. Liam Fox has not secured the 40 free trade agreements he assured would be ready for exit day and business is now exiting Britain at a frightening rate. Moreover, former MI5 head, Eliza Manningham-Buller, stated that any form of Brexit will render Britain less safe. It is remarkable how frequent these warnings are, and yet how little credence they are given. Folly has its day.

Most recently, warnings of the risks of a “no-deal” have escalated. At present, the default situation is that Britain leaves the EU on 29th March 2019, by automatic operation of the law, unless it ratifies an EU Withdrawal Agreement. As parliament has so far voted down that deal by a majority of 230, and in its amendment last week, resolved on something which the EU had already rejected (a change to the Irish backstop), no-deal looks increasingly likely.

With no-deal we might expect immobile freight traffic for miles due to delays at Dover (or perhaps, under the latest madcap scheme, no checks on goods at all—a huge security risk); shortages of food so school lunches fail to satisfy minimum nutritional requirements; lack of essential medicines; and even the evacuation of the Queen! Vast sums have been spent on a ferry company that may not even have ferries capable of carrying supplies; and the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, described himself as “the world’s No 1 buyer of fridges” to stockpile medicines. This is all very expensive. The Treasury recently announced a further £2bn in “Brexit preparedness” funding, taking the total to over £4bn.

However, it gets far worse. According to Hancock, the government plans to prioritise imports of medicine over food, in case of a no-deal Brexit, but he also refused to rule out that medicine shortages could lead to deaths. Yet we are not in a war zone. There has been no major terrorist incident. There has been no hurricane, or other natural disaster. However, should Britain fall off that proverbial no-deal cliff, the Civil Contingencies Act will likely be invoked declaring a state of emergency, and the government has refused to rule out martial law. Britain is declaring war on itself quite unnecessarily. Some will dismiss this as “Project Fear” (usually those same people all too willing to warn of huge civil unrest in the event of a second referendum or extending Article 50). “No one,” observes Tuchman drily, “is so sure of his promises as the man who knows too little.”

Deal or no deal?

So either there will be a no-deal, or some sort of deal will be ratified by 29th March (or Art 50 will be extended, which May has denied she will ever do). But, in any case, the government is hugely irresponsible to have brought the country to this prospect. This is folly in full flight. Brexit has turned a prosperous, peaceful country against itself, fired up by deceptive posters such as Leave EU’s “Breaking Point,” or lies plastered on a bus. Yet nothing has been done to seek reconciliation, or some form of Brexit that does not cast half the country as “traitors,” “queue jumpers,” or “citizens of nowhere,” because red lines have been irrevocably set, and free movement—a force for prosperity, solidarity and social mobility—must be removed. Apart from being darkly xenophobic, this is hugely damaging to Britain. Yet the government continues down the wrong road as if, in Tuchman’s words, “in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps.” Folly indeed.

There has also been little concern for the greater interests of state. The government has been found in contempt of parliament for failing to publish its economic assessments of Brexit, acted unconstitutionally in adopting legislation without the Scottish parliament’s consent, and now suffered the biggest governmental defeat in modern times. Yet it continues with the same policy, assailing an EU that has made it very clear it will not budge. Has parliament demonstrated any of that “taking control” that Brexit was supposedly about? Hardly. When presented with an opportunity to take greater control over the handling of Brexit via the Cooper and Grieve amendments in late January, our pusillanimous MPs rejected this. Folly under full sail.

As a result, the unworkable is now pursued at the sacrifice of the possible. Edmund Burke’s warning, in a parliamentary debate in April 1774, of “the distempered vigour and insane alacrity with which you are rushing to your ruin” holds true today. In the meantime, the legislative process is stalled, the many laws needed in force by Brexit day are nowhere near ready, and those that are adopted are often made without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.

Scottish independence?

In her 2018 Mansion House speech, the prime minister stated that she “would not allow anything that would damage the integrity of our precious Union.” Yet Scotland (which voted to remain in the EU) has been side-lined in the Brexit process and its parliament ignored when it refused consent to EU Withdrawal legislation. Technically, due to Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, this is legally possible, but it is politically unastute, an example of Burke’s (and Franklin’s) maxim that “everything one has a right to do is not best done.” Such insistence may provoke another independence referendum in Scotland. As for Northern Ireland, the government risks years of peace under the Good Friday Agreement, by backtracking on its former agreed position on the backstop. The backstop problem is entirely of the government’s making in any case, because it insists Britain must leave the customs union and single market, yet that there cannot be any borders through Ireland or the Irish Sea. In this way, the government has pledged incompatible outcomes—another sure example of folly, boding very badly for the future of the union.

All of the above tarnishes Britain’s international reputation. Moreover, in reneging on the backstop provision to appease the right wing of her party, the prime minister’s conduct suggests Britain cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith. Indeed, to the rest of the world, Britain’s behaviour over Brexit surely manifests a complete disregard for common sense, stability, peace and prosperity. If there had been a deliberate attempt to destroy Britain’s reputation by our governing classes, it is hard to see how this could have been better achieved.

The handling of Brexit constitutes “a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive.” Tuchman believes that by investigating historical episodes of folly, something might be learned. But will we learn? Hegel famously asserted that the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Is the lesson of Brexit only to be learned once it is too late? In the meantime, folly marches on.

This opinion piece was originally published in Prospect Magazine on 6 February 2018.

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