Brexit and the March of Folly
Bobby McDonagh: Why have so many otherwise sensible people joined the journey to a poorer and less influential Britain?
Barbara Tuchman, American historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner, has explored how throughout history governments and peoples have shown they are capable of persisting with a policy in the face of clear and mounting evidence that the policy is wrong for the nation. In The March of Folly she describes many instances of this phenomenon, culminating in the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam.
In order to qualify for Tuchman’s March of Folly, policies have to be: clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organisation or group pursuing them; conducted over a period of time, not just in a single burst of irrational behaviour; conducted by a number of individuals, not just one deranged maniac; and importantly there have to be people alive at the time who pointed out that the act in question was folly.
Dominic Raab’s resignation in protest at a deal he was himself responsible for negotiating is like robbing a bank and then performing a citizen’s arrest on yourself on the way out
A pity Tuchman died in 1989. Brexit Britain would have given her plenty of material for a second volume. Dominic Raab’s resignation in protest at a deal he was himself responsible for negotiating is like robbing a bank and then performing a citizen’s arrest on yourself on the way out.
Why have so many otherwise sensible people joined enthusiastically in the journey to a poorer and less influential Britain? On every score the Brexit phenomenon tallies with Tuchman’s description of The March of Folly. The willingness of many to point out that the emperor has no clothes, far from undermining her thesis, is part of her very definition of it.
Tuchman describes the phenomenon of “screening out information”. She notes that psychologists call this determination to ignore reality ‘cognitive dissonance’. This, she suggests, is an academic way of saying “don’t confuse me with the facts”.
Already during my time as Irish ambassador in London, between 2009 and 2013, British European policy was significantly driven by emotional posturing about sovereignty. Public discussion was led by populists. With honourable exceptions, the debate ignored the EU’s nature, achievements and purpose. The failure of those who knew better to speak out played an important role.
Tuchman would recognise, in act one of this British tragedy, the false narrative that led to David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum. From the square bananas to the mantra about Brussels bureaucrats; from the notion that compromises were unnecessary to the failure to recognise the UK’s particular effectiveness at striking such deals in its own interests.
She would recognise in act two the falsehoods of the Leave campaign including the £350 million for the NHS. What was the dismissal of experts other than a screening out of reality? Nor would she be surprised that all attempts, by respected British institutions and commentators, to identify the risks posed by Brexit were dismissed as Project Fear.
Have their cake and eat it
In act three, the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it was claimed that the people had spoken and could not be asked to speak again; this despite the fact that the Eurosceptics had worked assiduously over four decades precisely to get the people to speak again. It was casually asserted that the people had voted to leave the single market although they had been repeatedly assured they could have their cake and eat it.
During the negotiations, in act four, the screening out of reality was evident in the belief that the EU 27 could be divided from each other, that the EU’s negotiator could be bypassed, that German business interests would come riding to the rescue, and that the UK could negotiate better trade deals for itself than those it already has through the EU.
Alas far from questioning the March of Folly, many erstwhile sensible people joined in the foolishness. The foreign secretary’s comparing of the EU to the Soviet Union was just one manifestation of the spreading madness.
As we enter the final act of the tragedy, there have been signs of some
common sense kicking in. This week’s Brexit deal reflects valiant efforts by Theresa May to minimise the damage inherent in forging ahead. She deserves credit for attempting to reconcile reality with the ever louder cheering of party colleagues as they acclaim the splendour of the emperor’s raiments.
Jo Johnson’s recent support for a second referendum shows that the accepted wisdom can be challenged from within the system. It’s not surprising that Jo studied history.
However, the Brexit infantry march cheerfully ahead, blissfully unconcerned that their feuding military commanders are basing their campaign plans either on the tactical subtlety of the Charge of the Light Brigade or on the strategic brilliance of the Grand Old Duke of York.
Tuchman asks why people “within the system” rarely question a policy which is against the interests of their own country. She concludes that it would produce “conflict within a system already set on a particular course”.
Maybe she had powers to foresee the future as well as to understand the important lessons of the past.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy