Notes From the Margins…

When the Brexit Bubble Bursts

  • May 03, 2017
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Individual folly is very different from political folly.   When an individual acts in an openly self-destructive manner, or engages in behaviour contrary to his or her own interests or to those of the people around them, they are likely to get criticism or advice from their friends or family, or from other people who might hold up a mirror in front of them and show them the error of their ways.   Such interventions might be able to bring our troubled individual to his or her senses, and  convince them of the harm they are doing to themselves and to others.

But when whole communities or societies are behaving in a foolish, destructive or self-destructive manner, it’s very difficult to change or reverse the trajectory they’ve embarked upon.  Consider Theresa May’s ‘Brexit dinner. If the leaked revelations in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung were a correct rendition of what actually happened that evening – and few people seem to be denying that they were – it is clear that:

  • The Prime Minister who is asking the British public for a mandate to reinforce her position in the Brexit negotiations does not actually understand what these negotiations actually entail, in which case she is dangerously ignorant or ill-informed
  • Both her timetable and her objectives are unrealistic and not accepted by the European Commission – in which case she is committed to a course that has very little possibility of a positive outcome
  • May’s negotiating partners are genuinely shocked, worried and even horrified at the UK’s ‘delusional’ approach to Brexit.

Given the scope and the importance of the forthcoming negotiations, you would think that a country seriously interested in bringing them to the best possible conclusion from the point of view of its own material interests alone,  would take these criticisms very seriously indeed.   But that is not the kind of country that we have become.

Instead these revelations have provoked the usual frothing outrage in the Tory press, in below-the-line comments and on social media at the perfidious Europeans and cognac-loving foreigners who have been ‘arrogant’ enough to criticize us and attempt to ‘interfere with our election’.

No one should be surprised by these puerile and infantile insults.  To pay any serious attention or give any credence to the criticisms of Juncker and Merkel would entail acknowledging the enormous risks and limitations of the Brexit project,  thereby raising doubts and a capacity for self-analysis that are entirely absent from the collective mindset that produced the project in the first place.

As a result any doubts and criticisms can only be  attributed to ill-intentioned foreigners engaged in a ‘New Project Fear’, as the Telegraph called it, supported by what one moronic commentator in the Independent called ‘EU Quislings’.

This is how collective folly works.  Where individuals have to deal with social criticism and censure, communities and societies easily succumb to collective groupthink, sealed off from any thoughts or ideas that might contradict the basic assumptions that hold the group together,  so that its members combine to reinforce their worst instincts.

Charles Mackay once recognized these tendencies in his 1841 classic  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.   In a chapter on the ‘South Sea Bubble’ of 1720, Mackay  described the various joint stock companies that sprung up that year in addition to the South Sea Company, which induced thousands of people to invest their money in scams and fraudulent companies that had little or no possibility of success.

Some of the ‘Bubble Companies’ that were subsequently abolished by Parliament were superficially plausible:  One company proposed to pave the streets of London.  Another raised capital to invest in Cornish tin mines, and another ‘for sinking pits and lead ore in Derbyshire’.

But there were also companies that sold shares for enterprises such as ‘trading in hair’, ‘improving of gardens’, ‘furnishing funerals to any part of Great Britain’ and even – an enterprise that seems particularly appropriate to our own predicament –  ‘for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

In his consideration of why so many people were attracted to these schemes, Mackay commented on the ‘unwholesome fermentation’ of the British public, and  asked rhetorically whether it was

a dull or uninstructive picture to see a whole people shaking suddenly off the trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind running after an ignis fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire? But in this false spirit has history too often been written.

It has indeed, and now it is being written again, as the UK lurches blind into a negotiation process that its leaders do not understand, in pursuit of illusions that have very little possibility of realisation.

In her study of self-inflicted historical wounds  The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman, attributed ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ to a failure of leadership, and argued that

Intelligent government would require that the persons entrusted with high office should formulate and execute policy according to their best judgment, the best knowledge available and a judicious estimate of the lesser evil.

No one can plausibly argue that what Theresa May and her government are doing  any of these things.   For that they can and should be blamed right now – just as they undoubtedly will be blamed when historians pore through the wreckage of the trainwreck that is British politics for clues as to how it happened.

But the political tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes is not merely due to the machinations of the Tory party or the raw ambition of little men and women who have put their own careers and interests above any notion of the common good.

If the British public refuses to acknowledge any truth in the EU’s criticisms, and accepts May’s presentation of herself as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ valiantly standing up to the same corrupt foreigners who we fought in so many wars, then it will reinforce the worst tendencies of her government, which will in turn reinforce the worst instincts of the public.

If that public gives May a mandate, without even asking what the mandate is for, it will be no different to Mackay’s investors who once bought stocks in ‘an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

History is not kind to societies that behave like this.   In its account of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, the Parliamentary History at the time observed:

And thus were seen, in the space of eight months, the rise, progress, and fall of that mighty fabric, which, being wound up by mysterious springs to a wonderful height, had fixed the eyes and expectations of all Europe, but whose foundation, being fraud, illusion, credulity, and infatuation, fell to the ground as soon as the artful management of its directors was discovered.

A similarly precipitous fall awaits us  over a much longer period, unless we can find a way to come to our senses and recognize that what the UK is currently seeking through leaving the EU is very unlikely ever to happen, and was never likely to happen, and that the country is about to commit an immense act of self-harm that will be very difficult to escape from.

One very simple way to do this would be to deny May the mandate that she wants, and that she and her team are blatantly ill-equipped to receive.

Because otherwise we will put our collective fate in her hands, and in the hands of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, and the very least that can be said about this is that it is not a sensible decision.

Otherwise we shall have to wait for the Brexit bubble to burst.  And when that happens, and its consequences become clear, it is very unlikely to lead to reflection and analysis of what went wrong,  or whether the expectations behind it were ever realistic in the first place.

On the contrary, it’s far more likely that the mood of the public will turn even more bitter and rancorous than it already is, whipped on by the same irresponsible politicians and newspapers that are currently vilifying Juncker, and that the resultant failure will be blamed on ‘EU Quislings’, foreigners, immigrants and ‘Remoaners’ who ‘stabbed us in the back.’

History ought to tell us where sentiments like that can lead, but for the time being it seems,  too many politicians seem unable or unwilling to learn from history or halt the headlong rush towards a very painful collision between our collective illusions and reality.

But we can.  We can look at May and her party, and we can just say no, before it’s too late.




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  1. Guano

    4th May 2017 - 9:29 am

    It isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that Theresa May wants the trade negotiations with the EU to break down. She wants the UK to crash out of the Single Market without an agreement. The only things that matter is that a certain section of the UK population believe that the EU was at fault, and that a political advantage is gained from the chaos of leaving without any trade agreement with anyone.

    It is quite possible that May has realised that the expectations that have been raised are impossible to meet. The red lines that May imposed on her first day as PM make a trade agreement very difficult. It is unclear how May expects the UK to have a close trading relationship with the rest of Europe without accepting the jurisdiction of the ECJ, for example. There has to be a legal dispute-resolution mechanism and at present that is the ECJ: May has presented no alternative. It is unclear how 40 years of membership of the EU and free movement of EU nationals can be unwound without a legal dispute-resolution mechanism, which at present is the ECJ: May has presented no alternative. The only way that we can get away from “meddling foreign judges” (as the Daily Mail calls them) is to have no relations with the rest of the world or relations that have no legal oversight.

    And ending free movement of EU nationals is incompatible with the straightforward negotiation of a trade agreement that the Leave campaigns promised. Free movement of EU nationals is a central pillar of the Single Market, of which Margaret Thatcher was an important architect. The UK government has, as yet, not put forward any proposals of a trade agreement that would allow the UK to trade with Europe but without that central pillar of the Single Market.

    So it is quite possible that Theresa May is not seeking an agreement with the EU; it is possible that she is seeking an acrimonious breakdown.

  2. Zoltan Jorovic

    4th May 2017 - 2:41 pm

    To learn from history, or experience, you have to accept what happened and examine without prejudice or bias why and how it happened. People rarely do this and so history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce, as Marx said. It seems that we are currently in a farcical repeat of the 1930’s, complete with martinet leaders, threats of war, the rise of right wing popularism, economic stagnation, and division in Europe.

    Irrational delusions periodically sweep through cultures, especially as they near their collapse. The extraordinary decadence of popular culture and the vast gap between the extravagantly wealthy and the rest suggest a society which has lost its way and is no longer grounded in any sense of common purpose or cultural goal.

    Our politics is increasingly focused on petty differences and managerial processes with no suggestion of what sort of society/country/life we should aim for. More people feel alienated and outwith the “mainstream” because there is no clear direction and no view of where we should be heading. Instead of worrying about our destination we are preoccupied with the mode of transport, how much the tickets cost, what type of seat we have, how much baggage we can take, and whether we should travel in convoy or separately. No matter how much news you watch, or political discussion you listen to, you never hear anything about where we are going, why, and what to expect when we arrive.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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