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November 28, 2018

Fate of Brexiteers

Opinion

November 28, 2018

When a majority of the British people voted to leave the EU in 2016, I was struck by the similarity between the Brexiteers’ plans for their perilous voyage and those of Edward Lear’s characters in The Jumblies as they set to sea in their sieve. The analogy became more apt as the proponents of Brexit showed that they did not know nor care very much about the nature of the world into which they were proposing to sail other than to hope that everything would be alright on the night.

The Jumblies, like the Brexiteers, were swift to dismiss critical comment predicting a disastrous end to their venture, saying: “Our sieve ain’t big / But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig! / In a sieve we’ll go to sea!”

The water did indeed come in, but the Jumblies were not downhearted “because they wrapped their feet / in pinky paper all folded neat”. For extra safety, they pass the night in a crockery jar where they sang of their wisdom as they set their pea-green sail for lands where, among other things, they secured an owl, a pig and some green-Jack-daws, and “a lovely monkey with lollipop paws”.

The Brexiteers’ alternative to the EU is just as imaginary as that described by Lear as a habitation for the Jumblies. The reason why the Leavers have failed to negotiate the sort of settlement they said they wanted from the EU is simple: what they said in 2016 was based on the proposition that the EU got more out Britain than Britain got out of the EU. Had this been true, the British departure would be easy enough, because Britain could genuinely have threatened to walk away. But because Britain needs the EU more than vice versa, the outcome of the negotiations was always going to be heavily skewed in favour of Brussels.

Yet this simple proposition evidently eluded Dominic Raab, David Davis, Boris Johnson and the other Leavers who departed from the cabinet claiming that Britain was being blackmailed and bullied into submission. Successful negotiations always reflect the balance of power between the negotiating parties and it is puerile to believe that the settlement, which the EU leaders will or will not agree to in the next few days, was determined by a failure of will by Theresa May or subtle treachery by Remain-sympathising civil servants.

It is easy and right to deride the Leavers for their wishful thinking and inability to calculate the true balance of power between Britain and its neighbours. This is the same ruinous mistake made by so many populist-nationalist leaders down the decades. The great flaw of nationalists everywhere is an assumption that their nation has greater political, economic and military potential – and their rivals less – than is really the case.

Exaggerated ideas of national superiority have fuelled the most self-destructive policy mistakes of modern European history. They led to France declaring war on Prussia in 1870 and Germany choosing to fight wars on two fronts in both World Wars. American and British leaders blithely intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq this century in total ignorance of the real odds against their success.

Such military examples are apposite because Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is the equivalent of a major defeat in war. Suppose, hypothetically, that Britain fought and lost a military conflict with a rival European power, then the departure of Britain from the EU might well be demanded by the victor as a way of ensuring that Britain was permanently weakened.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Why the Brexiteers May be More Dangerous Than Trump’.

Courtesy: Counterpunch.org