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 o 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
a) 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
b) That 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
c) that 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 that was 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, and that it ought to take a long hard look at Theresa May and her team before voting for them. 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 in the Brexit project, 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 engage in 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 the worst instincts of the group. Charles Mackay once recognized these tendencies in his 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 it gives May a mandate, without even asking what the mandate is for, it will be no different to the 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 once 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 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.