Brexit: A Warning from History

Jonathan Ledwidge
Mar 21 · 8 min read

Failure To Deliver Brexit Will Have Profoundly Dangerous Consequences For Britain

The Die Is Already Cast

It no longer matters what we think of Brexit — leave or remain. Our opinions have become totally irrelevant because we have crossed the Rubicon and the die is already cast. What really matters now is what will happen, if despite the results of the referendum, Brexit is denied.

The signs are that if the UK Parliament fails to deliver Brexit, the country will experience a social and political upheaval that will cripple its economy and the nation’s institutions for at least the next 20 years. History tells us that this is what happens when nationalism responds to betrayal, real or perceived.

The Current State Of Play

Let us begin with the current state of play as a prelude to determining what is likely to happen next, should Brexit be denied.

Remainers believe, with more than reasonable conviction, that it is difficult to see how any post Brexit scenario will deliver economic results that are better than the pre-Brexit state. London’s financial district and a significant majority of the nation’s commercial enterprises strongly agree with that proposition. They have a singular problem, and that is that Brexit is primarily driven by nationalism, not economics — even though many Brexiteers want to suggest otherwise.

It would be totally misleading to suggest that all those who seek Brexit, aka Leavers, do so because they are racist or nationalists. There are many who believe that the EU has severely compromised British democracy — I also have some sympathy with that viewpoint. However, there is no question that the hardcore of the Brexit campaign is led by anti-immigrant, right-wing, nationalist agitators, who have much in common with their American and European nationalist counterparts.

President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, exploits these same sentiments, in his quest to create an international right-wing supergroup. “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour” — said Bannon in his address to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France.

This toxic combination of racism and nationalism, forever inseparable some might say, dramatically complicates the search for a solution to what has become the Brexit dilemma. To understand the very grave dangers inherent in this, let us examine some of the specific Brexit impacts on Britain to date, how Leavers are reacting, and what that reaction says about the country’s future.

The Damage So Far

So far, in post Brexit referendum Britain:

· The Independent reports that hate crimes, involving race and religion have increased by over 20% and in some areas, that increase has been more than 40%.

· The website Business Insider has one headline that reads: Companies are fleeing the UK no matter what happens with Brexit. The article, written in November 2018, further states that the exodus of companies represents some 6.5% of Britain’s GDP.

· In an article entitled; Post-Brexit skills shortages and how to solve them, People Management describes the inability of sectors such as hospitality, construction, IT and health to fill their job vacancies.

· Japanese car manufacturing in Britain is on the decline — some would even say on the way out.

· The trend in the UK’s GDP growth has inevitably, been revised downwards.

· The Pound has fallen from 1.60 to the US dollar to 1.3 — a massive fall in value.

Brexiteers Say Nothing To See Here

While all of this is being met with great concern by Remainers, many Leavers react with indifference and outright disdain. Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the paramount leader of the Brexit campaign takes it a step further, describing this decline thus; “we are now seeing the rebirth of the nation-state”.

For Brexiteers, any talk of damage to the economy is nothing more than lies and fearmongering, despite the very obvious and very real negative impacts of the Brexit journey to date. As they now press for a no-deal Brexit, their denial of reality would be laughable, were it not so serious. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that any talk of delay, an extension to the deadline or even more disturbing, a 2nd referendum, have resulted in palpable rage on the part of Leavers and Brexiteers.

The Telegraph, a conservative newspaper that supports the hard-line Brexit fringe of Theresa May’s Conservative Party, has been running headlines such as: “This Brexit betrayal is turning mild-mannered people into unexpected revolutionaries”, and “The betrayal of Brexit is one of the most shameful chapters in our country’s history”. While Catherine Blaiklock, founder of the newly constituted Brexit Party, states: “I think they will delay and betray”.

The Economist (Bagehot) has summarised the mood of the Brexiteers as follows; “Brexiteers are angry not just with Theresa May, but with reality”. That being the case, how will they react if the Brexit project is frustrated. History provides us with a few alarming insights.

Echoes Of History?

One hundred years ago, World War I ended when Germany agreed an Armistice on terms which were unfavourable to their nation. Germany capitulated for three very good reasons: its people were starving under the Allied blockade; the army could no longer resist the Allied forces, and; additional Allied reinforcements were arriving from the US.

In short, those who signed the Armistice recognised that Germany’s national ambitions had to be abandoned, in the face of some very real and harsh realities — the country was clearly in no position to continue a war.

The allies never forced the German army to surrender nor did they march into Berlin. This is perhaps one of the greatest mistakes in all recorded history, as German nationalists and ultra-nationalists never accepted the hopeless reality of their nation’s position in 1918. They preferred a different narrative — the German army had not been defeated in the field and as such, the Armistice was a betrayal of Germany by those who had signed it. It was their version of “alternative facts” or “fake news” to use the current terms.

This “betrayal”, known as the “stab in the back”, later evolved into what became known as the “Big Lie”, which nationalists maintained was perpetrated by Jews and the establishment who had signed the Armistice. It was with these tropes, German nationalism erupted with horrendous and devastating consequences.

Should Theresa May’s government fail to properly execute Brexit, Britain will experience its own version of the stab in the back betrayal and the Big Lie — as the Brexiteers will fashion a vision, though highly implausible (they think Britain could become like Singapore), of just how amazing Britain would be if a real Brexit had been executed.

Under such circumstances, there will be highly dangerous levels of social and political upheaval, as well as, massive political realignments. The establishment and the nation’s institutions will come under attack and people will gravitate towards the political extremes — sure signs of a state under dire stress. Any uncertainty over a final Brexit date would further damage the economy, exacerbating all of the above.

But Is It Happening Already?

The main elements of this calamity are already in place: denial of the truly negative impacts of Brexit; elevated levels of hostility towards immigrants, and; an anti-establishment sentiment has hit at an all-time high, not just in Britain but in the US, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines and many other countries. Most importantly, this is all happening within the context of a Brexiteer campaign which is decidedly nationalist and already screaming betrayal.

Yes, the echoes of the past are very real but there is still one very important difference.

When the Armistice which brought World War I to an end was signed in 1918, there was no social media to weaponise the hatred. While the Nazis never needed it, weaponised social media has proved a highly effective, modern propaganda tool, worthy of Goebbels himself. According to CNN, recordings of the New Zealand mosque attacks by a white nationalist were uploaded to Facebook 1.5 million times within the first 24 hours of the attacks. The attacker’s manifesto used the same kind of language as white supremacists in the US.

As with the period leading up to the referendum itself, any delay or failure to implement Brexit will give rise to a lot of fake news and alternative facts, which will only serve to exacerbate the divide between Remainers and Leavers.

Britain will not descend into Nazism — that is not a rational proposition. Yet, we should also be reminded that at the end of World War I, not a single person would have believed that the German civilisation of Goethe, Beethoven, Nietzsche and Einstein, would have later descended into such an orgy of barbarism.

The perils facing British democracy and the British people are best expressed by the following unattributed quote: “nationalism does not respect objectivity and rationalism — it devours them”. A plethora of British far-right parties have emerged to crystallise that theory, and they are in a highly agitated state.

Nationalisms Tragic Irony

There is another more recent example of the irrationality of nationalism, one which has morphed into a terrible and tragic irony.

The neoconservatives of the George Bush 43 Administration were nationalists who believed that American militarism was the cure for despots and dictators the world over, and they had Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, firmly in their sights. No amount of rational or moral intervention could dissuade them from their militaristic objectives. Not only were we told that democracy would triumph (Saddam was just a prelude to toppling other dictators) we were also told the war would pay for itself.

George Bush 41, that father of George Bush 43, had wisely chosen not to march on Baghdad after defeating Saddam’s forces in Kuwait. However, with an administration rife with neoconservative nationalists, his son refused or was dissuaded from heeding the many warnings to stay out of Iraq and its competing religious narratives.

We all know what happened next.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq has cost millions of lives, trillions of dollars, and in the Middle East, it continues to be the single most destabilising event of the past 50 years. In fact, the flow of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, triggered by that conflict and its destabilisation of Iraq and Syria, has greatly contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe, the US and the UK. There is absolutely no doubt that it played a role in the Brexit decision.

Tragic irony. This is what happens when nationalism devours objectivity and rationalism.

James Baker, Secretary of State to George Bush 41 and the man who steered the diplomatic minefield of the 1991 Gulf War, tells us everything we need to know about the folly of misdirected nationalism. He states: “I used to get asked why I didn’t want to push on to Baghdad, I don’t get asked that question much anymore.”

The Path We Must Follow

Brexit is an injudicious response to a political problem. It’s bad for the British economy and it has and will continue to inflict damage on the nation’s GDP. Yet, if the Westminster Parliament fails to properly enact Brexit, those losses will pale in comparison to the value destruction which will arise from a nationalist rebellion, borne out of a sense of betrayed and being “stabbed in the back”.

Remaining in the EU may seem to be the right thing to do. Yet, it may be the worst political decision in Briton ever. Businesses and Remainers, in general, must rethink their strategy, and one can only hope that the politicians in Westminster heed the warning from history.

Jonathan Ledwidge

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Jonathan has had a long career in banking and the financial markets in London. Currently works as a GRC trainer and consultant, focused on financial crime.