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I have this theory about Theresa May’s Brexit strategy – but it’s completely horrible so I sort of hope I’m wrong about it.

May 5, 2017


The past week or so we’ve heard all sorts of reports from Brussels about how clueless and unreasonable the Brexit negotiating team is.  How can they possibly be so unrealistic?  How can they make such impossible demands?  How can they pick fights they can’t possibly win? What are they hoping to achieve?

It occurs to me that a deal of this analysis is based on the assumption that “winning” is the point.  Let’s instead consider that there’s no question of “making a success of Brexit”.  The only “strategy” is to control the narrative.

We should probably all read more Georg Simmel, that pioneering social theorist who understood that “social problems” play a role in political structuration.  Institutions exist not to abolish these problems but to manage them.   Or we can consider the fact that for centuries, Ancient Rome maintained ongoing low-level wars with the Germans and the Parthians so that consuls and emperors had somewhere to go to win triumphs and a militarised society could continue to “blood” its youth.

Likewise, when more recent politicians have announced a “war on crime” or a “war on drugs” their intent is not to abolish crime or drugs but to be seen to be doing something very serious and to thereby gain funds to sustain powerful (and permanent) anti-crime and anti-war agencies.

For decades, likewise, the Tories have depended on Europe as a place where you went to show off how “tough” you could be.  Most Tories, until very recently, had no intention of leaving Europe.  Europe was somewhere for political spurs to be won, a place where you proved that you were “tougher” than your political rivals.  Tories sought neither to withdraw from Europe nor to engage positively with Europe but rather to win concessions from it.  Europe was politically necessary as an ongoing “challenge” that fueled a lazy but very profitable political rhetoric.

David Cameron finally bet the farm on a referendum he never thought he’d lose, not realising that the xenophobic rhetoric he himself had profited from and had strategically stoked from time to time had now become a very real political force with political consequences.

Many people have been wondering what Tories will do when they don’t have Europe to blame any more?  When Britain is left out in the cold, will politicians finally take responsibility for their own actions?

And I think Theresa May’s strategy is to defer reality for as long as possible by making things as messy as possible.  She does not want a clean divorce from Europe – she wants a train-wreck of a divorce, because she feels there is short term factional and personal political capital to be gained from so doing.

The single more effective and yet catastrophic rhetorical victory accomplished by first the so-called “Eurosceptics” and then the Brexiteers has been to construct Europe as “them” rather than “us” from a British point of view.   This involves mendaciously ignoring or denying European voting records which demonstrates that the UK, far from being in a continual minority of one, has voted with majority decisions for much of the time, has helped make European policy, and has influenced other nations at least much as other nations have influenced the UK.  This week, Theresa May has spoken darkly of “European politicians” and “continental media” as though the western section of the Eurasian landmass represented some dark collective purpose defined by ruthless hostility to Britain and its people.

Now a messy divorce from Europe will be immensely damaging to Britain.  The economy will suffer from endless uncertainty and Britain will become even more of an international pariah – despised for its posturing stupidity.  But May’s pledge to be a “bloody difficult woman” will consolidate European unity when trying to deal with these hopeless Brexiters and thereby reinforce an essential “Us and Them” dynamic that is plotted wholly for domestic political consumption.  The more frustrated various European negotiators become with the sheer tedium of Brexiteering stupidity, the easier it will be for the British media to reinforce the Tory view of collective European hostility, which will in turn, reinforce the Tory narrative that only they are “tough” enough to stand up to the Europeans.  It’s a process of manufacturing, nurturing and then gesticulating in front of your own preferred antagonists.

In other words, making Brexit messy, protracted and antagonistic, will have the effect of artificially extending the shelf-life of Eurosceptic political capital.

The point is not to get the best deal for Britain but to be seen to be tough in the face of a supposed external threat and to sustain a conflict that will be so interminable that it will shape the narrative not only of the the 2017 election but the 2022 election also.

This policy has the potential weakness that British jobs and investment will suffer greatly, and the economy will tank.  Far worse still, this relentless “us and themism” will have profound moral and spiritual consequences, creating a nastier, more spiteful, more frightened,  more imaginatively impoverished environment in which to try to somehow raise children.

Britain is currently governed by the recession-proof, people who can zap their money all over the world at the press of the button.  Recessions are nothing more than a good reason to kick poor people even harder.

Wrecking the British economy with endless and unnecessary Brexit posturing and delay has the effect of sending Britain into a tailspin of suicidal paranoia while provoking a craving for “strong leadership” that will enable Theresa May and her friends to monopolise Westminster for the next decades.

I think European negotiators have been slow to spot this strategy because they’re unfamiliar with people who have so little sense of national interest.  The concept of politicians who are prepared the threaten the economic, political, civic and ethical survival of the nation they claim to represent, just for comparatively short term factional advantage is quite strange to them.

Although Theresa May making Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary offered something of a clue.


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One Comment
  1. NMac permalink

    Excellent article Conrad. I wonder too if Tory politicians are also still imbued with the Imperial mantra, now long gone, but still alive in their minds, of dealing with “lesser breeds” from on high. If so I suspect their bubble will soon be well and truly burst by the competent and realistic European negotiators. What an utter mess they have landed us all in.

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