The Brexit saga – reflections on a historical analogy

Introduction

As the October 2019 Brexit deadline looms (subject to any possible extension), with anticipation of an orderly exit ebbing and flowing, this briefing offers some reflections on the story so far (from an Irish perspective) through the prism of analogy with the circumstances around the First World War (WW1), without suggesting equivalence between the gravity of the two events. Focussing primarily on the process, it does not seek to evaluate the pros and cons of Brexit, but considers how the process has evolved, including comparison with some key factors in the drift towards war in 1914. Some striking parallels are observed,  particularly in terms of strategic dynamics and patterns of behaviour by key players, including: lack of a compelling overall rationale; a sense of fatalism towards unfolding events; focus on strategic positioning more than avoidance of adverse consequences; tension between pursuit of narrow objectives and wider interests; the implications of leadership judgment or misjudgment; and belief that it could all be over quickly.

A sombre similarity between the two events is their significance for Ireland. Some questions and possible implications are also touched on without, however, presuming to visualise how the saga might ultimately conclude.

October 2019 -  July 1914 revisited

“The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world”. With this final sentence in “The Sleepwalkers”, a compelling account of how  Europe went to war in 1914, Cambridge Professor Christopher Clark drew comparisons  with the onset of the Eurozone financial crisis of 2011-12. If the book, which was published in 2012, were being written today, an even closer analogy would be available as the stumbling of the UK’s leaders along the cliff of Brexit evokes eerie parallels with those drifting towards war in July 1914.

Rationale

The endless coverage of Brexit has conveyed much sloganising, toxic argument, and political manoeuvring, but little credible rationale for such a radical departure. Nostalgia for an imagined age of British greatness boosted referendum support, but hardly explains the investment of so much effort, ingenuity, and indeed money, in the project, no more than a desire to configure a uniquely British-shaped banana, or even annoyance with Brussels bureaucrats.

The much-quoted slogan “take back control”, is credited with swaying opinion by appealing to patriotic sentiment. The exact purpose for which “control” would be deployed remains unclear. Proponents of Brexit have scarcely been challenged with rigour and insistence to clarify this or, indeed, to spell out, in practical rather than rhetorical terms, what precisely Brexit is intended to “fix”. The UK economy has prospered in recent years. The scope to expand UK world trade without ever leaving the EU is evident from the fact that the value of its exports to China is just over 20% of Germany’s.  Indeed it is not much greater than the level of exports to China from Ireland.

Greater control of immigration seems difficult to square avoidance of checks at the Northern Ireland border. The “control” mantra carries as much credibility as the commonly-proffered justification for WW1, “a war to end war”. After a century of general peace and, unlike 1939, without major aggression or threat to democracy, Europe drifted to war without a clear rationale (if war can ever be rationalised) or even intent, as the “Sleepwalkers” title implies.

In the absence of a more obvious rationale, rumours of  some interests having a significant financial stake in a disorderly Brexit have emerged. Perhaps reports of EU concern about intention to create a deregulated “Singapore on Thames” merit attention given the bullish approach to a “no-deal” outcome in some quarters and apparent UK Government reluctance to agree a “level playing pitch” post-Brexit in the labour, environment, and State aid areas.

Propaganda and sentiment

Given the lack of a substantive rationale, it is arguable that Brexit is largely a matter of sentiment.  Some media outlets have persistently scapegoated the EU although, ironically, issues such as crime, transport, and social care, are entirely within UK control, and areas that have benefited significantly from EU funding, show high levels of support for Brexit. Similarly, the DUP position is difficult to rationalise other than in terms of sentiment, given the views of most economic interests in Northern Ireland, the potential benefits of the “backstop” arrangement, and the difficult position in which the party finds itself with pressure to conclude an agreement.

As in war, truth has been a casualty in the bitter Brexit exchanges. Rash prophecies of immediate economic doom in 2016, were matched by fantastic promises of an NHS bonanza, and scaremongering about immigration. Sections of the media continue to fuel trenchant positions.  Enthusiasm for a hard line at the recent Conservative party conference illustrates how duty to party or cause can override objective judgment. Rhetoric such as the “surrender Act” is calculated to bolster such zeal while also distracting from substantive issues.

Propaganda became a significant weapon in WW1, with demonisation of the enemy through charges of atrocities. Patriotic zeal was mobilised in support of war once declared, notwithstanding previous lack of enthusiasm in Britain. Myth-making and scapegoating had a particularly toxic effect in post-WW1 Europe, especially Germany.

Changing perceptions

Propaganda aims to create impressions and change perceptions, not least through skillful deployment of language. A subtle example is the pervasive  “deal” and “no-deal” shorthand. This jargon suggests that issues such as the “backstop” are matters for haggling, rather than non-negotiable safeguards for the single market and peace and stability in Ireland, with EU defence of them being portrayed as intransigence. Similarly, the UK government response to the Supreme Court ruling sought to equate, in the public mind, the “opinion” of politicians with a court judgment.

The liability of perceptions and positions to change significantly is reflected in a quotation from August 1914 in Professor Clark’s book: “Nobody seems to remember that a few days ago, Serbia was playing a star role in this affair. She seems to have faded away behind the scenes.” Subtle changes in Brexit messaging and perceptions have accompanied the shift from “good deal” towards “no deal” and latterly the possibility of “a deal”. The assertion that the need to sell German cars and French wine to Britain would ensure a good bargain is no longer heard. As pressure for compromise on Irish aspects increased, sight was lost of the interim nature of the “backstop” and that it was necessitated by lack of trust. The need to reach a deal after if not before EU exit has tended to be ignored. As the possibility of a deal being reached increased in the wake of the Johnson/Varadkar meeting in Cheshire on 10 October, further significant change became evident in how some issues were viewed.

The many and the few

Battle of Britain spirit has been invoked as reassurance that, whatever hardships arise, British pluck will prevail. Some on the other side have inverted the Churchillian assertion about so much being owed by so many to so few to portray their anticipation of widespread damage, a version applicable also to the devastation wrought on millions in WW1 by decisions of leaders, both civil and military. A contemporary phrase, “lions led by donkeys”, succinctly captured that sentiment. That imagery may not be entirely appropriate to current circumstances, but many objective observers would question the calibre of recent UK leadership. Equally, it would be lamentable if the sacrifices of workers in Britain and elsewhere, which largely built recovery from  the economic crash, were to be set to nought by misguided decisions.

WW1 did not happen by accident but resulted from a series of dreadful errors and  ill-judged actions, resulting from arrogance, incompetence and short-sighted pursuit of national or political self-interest. War was not a central policy of the main powers, but some interests were not averse to it, and the threat of war formed a key element of strategy. Parallels with the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit being used as a tactical instrument, and welcomed in some quarters, seem inescapable. The leaders of 1914 professed commitment to peace which their actions failed to match. The UK government has proclaimed similar commitment to reaching agreement, while asserting absolute willingness to pursue a “no-deal” course. Any apparent inconsistency has been rationalised in terms of a greater strategy of leveraging a deal.

Revolutionary upheaval and loss of trust in established institutions were outcomes of the failure of leadership and governance that produced the great catastrophe, and was exploited in post-WW1 Europe with further disastrous consequences. Public alienation poses a particular challenge to 21st century western democracy. The Brexit movement has appealed to disenchantment with the perceived establishment,  some even characterising a “soft Brexit” as anti-democratic. It seems ironic that, if two former UK Prime Ministers are to be believed, the leaders of Brexit would seem to display a deficiency of trust and questionable motives.

A sense of inevitability

A sense of inevitability about Brexit, and even the possibility of a relatively “hard” Brexit, has seemed increasingly prevalent, even some who were opposed to leaving the EU. Future electoral consequences probably influenced some to get behind the 2016 result. Judgment may also have been assuaged by the comfort of “respecting the result of the referendum”, as if that might mitigate negative consequences. Similarly, leaders in 1914 allowed awareness of the impending doom to be deflected by assuming the role of responding defensively to circumstances. There may also be a tendency to support a decision once it is made, as in the UK following declaration of war in 1914 despite much scepticism about participation in a conflict that did not seem critical to its interests.

By 1914, the main powers had concluded that a European war was likely, if not inevitable, despite the lack of a compelling rationale and the fact that its occurrence ultimately involved an unlikely conjunction of circumstances. Nonetheless, claims of progress towards peace abounded even in the tense month of July 1914, but the main issue was the likely extent of a conflict, with many leaders still professing, a view (or hope) that a localised Balkan conflict could avert a continental war. The feasibility of a  “deal” acceptable to the EU and meeting hard-line demands continued to be proclaimed by the UK government through September/October 2019. However, claims of “intensive efforts” and “progress being made” met with scepticism, and in some cases more forthright rejection, by leaders of the EU and member-States, at least until the Johnson/Varadkar meeting.

Strategy usurps policy

By 1914, anticipation of war had profound behavioural effects. Leaders focused on its timing, with determination to maximise advantage. For example, a German military view was that if war was inevitable, better that it happen before Russian economic and military strength, which was thought to be steadily increasing,  became irresistible. Effort focussed on strategic positioning more than preservation of peace. Persuading friends and enemies alike of preparedness for war became a significant element of strategy, as exemplified by the Tsar’s stated aim “to safeguard peace by the demonstration of force”.  Conviction that war was unavoidable evolved into preparations to maximise strategic advantage, leading to military mobilisation, pre-emptive mobilisation, and counter-mobilisation, which became irreversible. Professor Clark describes German leaders as “remarkably slow to grasp the scale of the disaster unfolding around them”. Frantic exchanges between the German and Russian imperial cousins were fruitless, and a belated effort by the German Chancellor to withdraw from the cliff-edge was too late to halt the dynamic that made war a reality.

Intensified preparations for “no deal” in Autumn 2019 were understandably described by the UK government as prudent and necessary, but they also had a tactical purpose. A dominant Brexit narrative has been that, to secure a good deal the UK must convince the EU of its readiness to leave without one, which the previous administration failed to do. Concern has been voiced that such preparations had taken precedence over effort to reach agreement, as reflected by a former UK Minister, Amber Rudd, whose resignation letter, as published, stated “I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the Government’s main objective”.

The inherent risks of a strategy based on bluff and guessing at opposition responses were amplified in pre-WW1 Europe by a series of flawed judgments and miscalculations. Germany supposed that Russia would not intervene if Austria took punitive action against Serbia; underestimated how much French security policy, mindful of the 1870 invasion, was wedded to the Russian alliance; and  misjudged the possibility of British involvement.

It is arguable that complex tactical positioning, complacency, or misjudgment of the EU response to the “no deal” threat has not proved helpful to the UK position. UK “blinkmanship”  may have miscalculated the EU imperative to defend the single market even at the expense of a UK deal and underestimated both the extent to which the EU had already moved and the frustration of other States. It is evident also from statements by some prominent UK politicians that they failed to appreciate that the EU does not, as they do, approach the issue primarily from the perspective of politics in England. It also seems evident that the entire Brexit project was launched without adequate appreciation of the extreme difficulty that would arise in reconciling a range of very divergent objectives and conflicting requirements, along with the considerable technical complexity involved.

Perhaps an apparent tactical shift indicated in reports on 7 October of internal UK briefings regarding relations with individual States was a sign of reduced belief that the EU might “blink”. It has, of course, been suggested that some Brexit strategists have not been banking on the EU blinking, but would welcome a “no-deal” outcome, with an approach resembling the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in 1914 or the setting by proponents of British intervention in the war of “red lines” that Germany was unlikely to accept. Such concern arose with reports on 30 September of leaked proposals for “a string of customs clearance sites on both sides of the (Northern Ireland) border” enclosing a no-man’s land type buffer zone. Labour Party leader in Ireland, Brendan Howlin TD. was reported as commenting “I don’t think anyone would table such proposals with a view to securing an agreement”.

Blame or acclaim

As “no-deal” prospects appeared to increase in early October, all parties in the Brexit affair seemed keen to assign blame for possible failure elsewhere. This was the case in Summer 1914; as prospects of peace receded the various powers adopted positions aimed at casting themselves in a favourable light. This included falsification of mobilisation dates and claims by each to be reacting to external factors beyond their control. Germany sought to claim a defensive position because its mobilisation followed that of Russia, which had already constructed the narrative that peace depended on Germany restraining Austria.

As time became scarce, disorderly Brexit narratives emerged. In the event of a “crash-out”, blame would be attributed by the UK government to EU inflexibility or to its negotiating position being undermined side by “remain” side action, notably by the “Benn Act”. The pro-Brexit media particularly targeted Ireland, especially the Taoiseach, Dr Leo Varadkar TD. For the other side, the main problem was the UK government’s failure to offer realistic, proposals.

Detailed UK proposals on 2 October met with diplomatic, but cool, responses from  the EU and the Irish Government. They would be considered by the EU, but only as a starting point since they did not fully satisfy the withdrawal agreement’s objectives, and involved a possible DUP veto. Their presentation as the UK’s final offer reinforced concern that they were designed to create an impression in the UK of compromise and positivity with blame, in the event of disagreement, to fall on the EU. The European Council President was reported as “unconvinced” by them; the European Parliament Brexit Co-ordinator was “very sceptical”, and Taoiseach Varadkar was reported as commenting that “the EU, including Ireland, does not feel that the proposals put forward … yet form the basis for deeper negotiations”. The offer was described more bluntly on BBC’s Newsnight programme by a London Times Correspondent as “not a serious proposal”.

In a House of Commons speech on 3 October, the UK Prime Minister, Mr Johnson portrayed the issue as depending on EU willingness to compromise, while DUP leader Mrs Arlene Foster described the Irish Government as “intransigent” on the matter.  The question of whether the proposals meet requirements seemed to be overlooked, which did little to dispel concern that they might be designed primarily to apportion blame in the event of failure to  reach agreement.

The “no-deal” strategy was regarded by many commentators as an election narrative, aimed to undermine support for the Brexit Party and engineer a general election.  Avoiding Conservative Party meltdown also influenced Prime Minister May’s approach, with “red lines” aimed to appease Brexit hardliners. A parallel in 1914 was how fear of splitting the Liberal government became a crucial factor in the UK entering the war. Party political considerations generally have influenced positions on Brexit to a degree that seems remarkable given what is at stake. Opponents of “hard Brexit” in different parties were slow to cooperate. Moderate Conservatives were reluctant until recently to take a strong stand for fear of opening the way to a Corbyn government, Liberal Democrats view the latter prospect similarly, although consistently opposing Brexit, while the Labour position was conflicted by electoral considerations.  The previous withdrawal agreement failed to be ratified by the UK parliament and any revised agreement is also susceptible to the vicissitudes of Westminster politics.

It seems debatable whether UK Government strategy has been aimed primarily to secure a favourable deal or to force a “no-deal” outcome or possibly an unwanted extension, by adhering to unacceptable proposals. The latter would not seem logical since a deal would need to be concluded, either before exit or, with likely greater difficulty, after a disorderly separation. However, logic has not prevailed in the Brexit saga and it is possible that, when the history of Brexit comes to be written (assuming it ever concludes), 2 October 2019 may be viewed similarly to 23 July 1914, the day the unacceptable ultimatum was delivered. However, the likelihood of this receded following Taoiseach Varadkar’s meeting with Prime Minister Johnson on 10 October at which they identified a “pathway” to an agreement. Optimism has waxed and waned since then, during intensive work on details of an agreement that could be legally and operationally effective, and its subsequent scrutiny at Westminster.

One effect of the swing towards optimism has been a change in emphasis from narratives of blame to claims of victory. Hard-line supporters claim that the EU was forced to compromise in the face of the increasing “crash-out” threat. Most commentators, however, consider that the UK government has made substantive changes in its position on Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to  customs and Stormont consent. Perhaps, unlike the leaders of July 1914, those of October 2019 may have come to “grasp the scale of the disaster unfolding” before it was too late. It is also likely that the safest route to an election victory is reckoned to lie through concluding a deal, avoiding the impact of the Benn Act, and honouring the much-trumpeted commitment to exit by 31 October. Moreover, in the possible event of rejection of a deal at Westminster, the UK leaders could approach an election on the basis of acting under duress, similar to their 1914 counterparts.

It will be over by Christmas/Halloween

The main rationale for possible acceptance of a “no-deal” Brexit seems to have been that “people just want to get it over with”. Capitalising on this assessment of popular Brexit fatigue, the current successor to the “take back control” slogan is  “get Brexit done”.  This simplistic but spuriously attractive slogan ignores the fact that an exit would only be the start of a protracted and fraught process, the length and difficulty of which would be amplified by a disorderly exit, in addition to the damage and disruption that would cause.

The prospect of getting Brexit “done” and getting back to normal, sounds an eerie echo of the 1914 slogan, that the war would be “over by Christmas”. It was to continue well beyond four Christmases and, instead of returning to “normal”, the world was utterly changed, politically, economically, and socially. The full implications of Brexit, hard or soft, are difficult to predict but are likely to be long-lasting, which underlines the superficiality of the “get Brexit done” slogan.

Ireland

The significance of WW1 to Irish history is well known, including its implications for Home Rule, the 1916 rising, and the huge sacrifice of thousands of Irishmen and women involved directly in the First World War and the Irish Wars 1916-1922. Less well-known, perhaps, is the impact of Ireland on UK participation in WW1. Preoccupation with the so-called “Irish question” in Spring/Summer 1914 diverted UK government attention from the developing crisis in Europe. Moreover, a factor in the decision to enter the war was the position of Tory unionists, calculating that war would cause the indefinite shelving of Home Rule. An example of the consequences of pursuing narrow interests.

Predictably, Ireland became the main focus of pressure in the Brexit crisis of October 2019, following rejection by the UK government of the agreement concluded by its predecessor. Concern that presentation of UK proposals as the sole alternative to a catastrophic “no-deal” was designed to pressurise Ireland on the “backstop”  as time runs out, was reinforced by reports on the 7th October of a  “no-deal danger list to lean on Ireland”. Ireland has been portrayed by some as the main problem for Brexit, but it would seem more valid to describe Brexit as Ireland’s British problem.

It is likely that brexiteer “blinkmanship” has always involved a belief that Ireland would not be a deal-breaker for the EU. This was probably a serious misreading of EU priorities and vital interests. In addition to implications for the single market, reneging on commitments to Ireland would greatly damage EU credibility and threaten long-term decline of the European Union. The  UK  government  seems to have eventually come to realise this and, in approaching the October 10 meeting, to recognise that Ireland was the key to an agreement rather than being the problem. It is conceivable that serious, if belated, reflection on the grave security implications of a hard border in Ireland and other consequences of  a no-deal crash-out, may have contributed to this enlightenment.

The consequences

The minds of Europe’s leaders in the lead-in to WW1 seem to have been less occupied by the consequences of a continental war than with strategic positioning. In addition to its human toll, the economic effects of the war were felt over the succeeding two decades. The 1929 crash and subsequent Great Depression were related to post-WW1  German hyperinflation, UK indebtedness, and excessive US financial stimulation. It also needs to be acknowledged that Ireland’s relationship with the UK changed utterly with independence  declared by the first Dáil Éireann  in 1919, setting an example for the many other colonies of the then British Empire.

The problems that have arisen with Brexit can be attributed in large measure to the fact that voters at the 2016 referendum were not presented with details of what form it would take, let alone a clear analysis of the likely implications. Since then scrutiny of the long-term consequences of Brexit has continued to be less rigorous than might be expected. The Brexit movement claims that any short-term cost will be far outweighed by future economic upsurge from escaping EU shackles, without clarifying how this will be achieved. Predictions of major economic shocks in the immediate wake of a “leave” vote proved false. This scare proved unhelpful to “remain” credibility, allowing all concerns about economic damage to be dismissed as part of  “project fear”, as if Michael Fish’s failure to forecast the Great Storm of October 1987 warrants ignoring all weather warnings.

While the dangers for Northern Ireland have been emphasised of late, though not during the referendum, there has been surprisingly little focus on the potential wider impact of Brexit on peace and international stability. A key purpose of the EU’s creation, the avoidance of European war, is seldom mentioned. Complacency about peace after a century free of major conflict contributed to the drift into war in 1914. Can it be assumed that future conflict is impossible, or that a more fragmented Europe will not be more vulnerable to external threats?

The UK political structure is unlikely to be unaffected by the Brexit process given the extent of division and bitterness it has engendered. Significant party realignment is conceivable, as happened with the virtual collapse of the Liberal Party and the rise of Labour following WW1. There is also a view that a relatively “hard” Brexit could impact the structure of the union, as WW1 did.

Comment

As this paper is being concluded, the danger of a “crash-out” seems to have receded although, given the twists and turns in the story so far, nothing can be taken for granted. A deal has been agreed, but the crucial ratification process currently resembles parliamentary trench warfare, with “Ulster says no”  echoing in the background, as in 1914, and uncertainty  about when it will all end. The final decision could lie anywhere between “no deal” and “no Brexit” but if either of these extremes occurs, the narrative of blame will, no doubt, resurface. Assuming that an orderly exit is achieved, whether by the somewhat arbitrary October 31 deadline or under an extended timetable, or even subject to a confirmatory referendum, this will only mark the end of the first phase. It will certainly not all “be over by Christmas” as the “get Brexit done” slogan would suggest.

Contemporary accounts of wartime Germany describe how “after the enthusiasm and patriotism, came a wave of quietness because then, the first death lists were published in the papers”. The likely consequences of Brexit, “deal” or “no-deal”, are not comparable but, if a disorderly exit were to occur, damaging effects are likely to be seen quickly. Contrary to a common impression, however, they would not be entirely transient, particularly with regard to grave Northern Ireland-related security implications. The full impact of an orderly Brexit is likely to be longer-term. Only time can tell whether the hope, enthusiasm, and indeed patriotic sentiment, that has been generated in support of project Brexit prove justified. The comment attributed to Chinese leader Chou en Lai, that it was too early to assess the effects of the French Revolution, seems likely to be applicable to Brexit for some considerable time.