Brexit: the charge of the Right brigade

The UK is facing into the most challenging set of decisions since the second World War

Tory party ideologues want the hardest Brexit imaginable. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Tory party ideologues want the hardest Brexit imaginable. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

 

The similarities between the two governing parties in the United States and the United Kingdom are painfully obvious. In one key respect they are actually identical: both are in thrall to right wing ideologues. Of course, the Tories and the GOP have always had nutters. What’s new is the almost total control they exert.

They define themselves by what they loathe: government spending, taxes, socialised healthcare, the EU. In the US, it means, as Trump is discovering, nothing gets done. In the UK, it couldn’t be more different: loads will happen, plenty will get done. But it will be a modern version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The current British government reminds me of the kind of people who ran the banks during the financial crisis. For the most part, board members never had to encourage a culture of excellence. Good enough rather than brilliant. That’s fine when the underlying business drivers are chugging along sedately; decisions don’t have to be big ones. Vision, courage and genius are not necessary, maybe even a hindrance.

Average

The UK cabinet is like an average board: mostly good enough in normal times. But the next few years are going to present an extreme test of stamina and ability. Churchill was neither much wanted nor needed during peacetime but was born to be a war leader. From Shakespeare to Hollywood, the idea of exceptional times that demand exceptional leaders is well worked. The UK is facing into the most challenging set of decisions since the second World War and is being led by May, Johnson, Davis and Fox, all of whom appear to have been completely captured by the Daily Mail.

Whatever we might think about the aims and methods of past British governments, it is rare to see such a lethal combination of incompetents and ideologues. Even Margaret Thatcher had a deeply pragmatic side and was able to populate her administration with people who knew how to get things done.

And she had a firm grasp on basic principles of negotiation, something that eludes Theresa May. It’s as if May has attended only the first week of the month-long negotiating skills courses offered by all good business schools. She understands the importance of letting the other side know she has a “walk away price” but has displayed no awareness that this is a symmetrical concept: the other side also has objectives and red lines which, if crossed, also involves them walking away from the table.

Crucially, threats must be credible. Theresa May’s decision to use the future of three million EU citizens as a bargaining counter is as disgusting as it is stupid: everyone knows that there is no scenario whereby these people are going to be deported or have their legally acquired rights denied. It is an entirely empty threat. Literally incredible.

Principles

No matter how hard Theresa May tries to present an impression of well-reasoned negotiating principles, she can’t hide a streak of nastiness: the most recent example was contained in the Article 50 letter when she put cooperation over security on the table as another bargaining counter. EU citizens in the UK have now been joined by the spooks: both groups are appalled by the government’s willingness to adopt with alacrity every unethical position offered to it.

The capture of the government by the ideologues of the Tory party is complete. They want the hardest Brexit imaginable. That it potentially will be as big a disaster as in 1854 when a few hundred lightly armed cavalry charged massed ranks of Russian artillery is entirely the point: the Charge of the Light Brigade has gone down in British history as a magnificent failure. It’s become something of a tradition in certain quarters to try and repeat the experience.

Brexit is, I fear, going to be more than a little reminiscent of past glorious defeats, one of the spectacular failures so treasured by certain types of English nationalists. Charging armed only with swords at hundreds of guns pointed straight at you makes perfect sense to members of this tribe.

A French general observing the British cavalry being blown to pieces famously said, “it isn’t war but it is magnificent”. That’s the bit that made it into old-Etonian consciousness. He also said, in a comment that is far less well known (in Britain at least), “it is madness”.

Theresa May has just ordered ‘charge’ and an incredulous Europe stands, like the Russian gunners at Balaclava, ready to shoot as soon as the British come into view. It’s as one-sided a negotiation as they come.

Paul Marshall, a hedge fund Leave campaigner, presented in the FT this week a prototypical Brexit plan: become a bastion of global free trade, deregulate, build a knowledge economy and step up investment. The vacuity of all this is breathtaking. It reveals, yet again, the unseriousness of the Brexiteers, their indifference to the economy and their true motives.

Free trade agreements these days are more about regulations than tariffs. Unfettered free trade will eviscerate what’s left of British manufacturing. Is there any country in the world, even ones committed to staying in the EU, whose policymakers do not aspire to a “knowledge economy”? Bizarrely, Marshall sings the praises of Germany and Leipzig for their transformational infrastructure investments. Last time I looked, both the country and the city were in the EU.

The British people are still being lied to.

Without compromises that will be unacceptable to the ascendant wing of the Tory party, Brexit will have to be as hard as they come. In other words, ‘no deal’, with all of the attendant carnage, looks horribly possible. The key insight here is that this is exactly what the ideologues want: magnificent failure. Charge!

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