The March of Folly

Brexit and the Disunited Kingdom


There’s something about the books by the late great Barbara Tuchman that have stayed with me, years after I’ve read them. The start of the First World War was a page turner in The Guns of August. A Distant Mirror-the Calamitous 14th Century described a medieval world that straddled Game of Thrones (without the dragons) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (without the funny bits). I glanced through The March of Folly shortly after the Brexit Vote to recall how she defined the word folly: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” Surely, that’s what happened June 23 in the former United Kingdom. To misquote the Pythons: “The Referendum went largely as I predicted… except that the Silly Party won.” The New Yorker expressed it perfectly on its cover: A “silly-walk” off a cliff.

An unnecessary and divisive referendum, the “Leave” side won largely as a result of older voters from mid and northern England. I imagine more than a few of them were “Boaty McBoatface” supporters. They voted against the European Union (EU) as much as they voted against Oxbridge elites, government regulation, the professional class, London bankers, David Cameron, Europeans, and of course, immigrants. It’s puzzling how a country that colonized more than half the world could complain so much about immigration. It now seems that many of them were hoodwinked by outright lies about how much the UK sends to the EU each week; a claim UKIP Leader Nigel Farage immediately backed away from. After the vote, of course.

Scottish voters favoured staying in the EU by a whopping 62.2% to 38.8%. Yet the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence resulted in Scotland voting to stay in the UK by a margin of 55% to 44%; largely because of the UK’s membership in the EU. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that Scotland’s future was with the EU even if England’s wasn’t, and that a new referendum on Scottish independence was all but certain. Northern Ireland is also reconsidering its future; its Deputy First Minister stating that “English voters were pulling Northern Ireland out of Europe against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.” Unless the Scots can somehow veto the Brexit, Little England may well have destroyed the United Kingdom.

But it’s not just the Scots and the Northern Irish who feel hijacked by the English. It’s those under 40 whose futures in Europe have been hijacked by an older generation who couldn’t care less about them. Moreover, lawyers, accountants and others who have integrated their personal and professional lives into a United Europe may find their skills are obsolete in a new Disunited Kingdom. Obviously, UK businesses who have counted on the open markets of the EU for more than a generation may well fire their English workers and move their enterprises to the continent. (Or Scotland.)

The EU, arguably fed up with the UK, now wants the UK out ASAP. (Somehow I hear the voice of Peter O’Toole screaming “No Prisoners” in “Lawrence of Arabia.”) One of my colleagues, (with more than a touch of schadenfreude) hopes the EU treats the Brits twice as “nicely” as the EU treated Greece a few years back. Brexit ringleader Nigel Far-age has now quit politics, leaving it to others to clean up the mess he created (giving credence to the old saying: “arsonists never bring water to the fires they set.”).

Political scientists will be studying this referendum for years. It may trigger the departure of other countries from the EU, reinvigorate separatists in Québec, and conceivably rekindle independence movements in the United States.

No one, including Hillary Clinton, should underestimate voters who hate government, the financial sector, political elites, lawyers, the educated, and of course, immigrants.

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