The charge of the Brexit brigade

For some strange reason, these lines are running through my head ahead of the triggering of Article 50.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It’s not so much because I think we will be metaphorically blown to pieces by the guns of the other 27 EU members. Nor because that verse is a pretty accurate description of MPs trooping through the lobbies to vote for something they know is a historic mistake. It’s because our generals seem to think those are reasons to send us even faster into the valley.

Without stretching the metaphor too far, the famous charge into the Russian guns at the Battle of Balaklava was the result of ambiguous orders, arrogance and personal rivalries. Lord Raglan probably said something about ‘having a punt, having a go, that’s what pumps me up’, Lord Lucan (yes, really) gave a speech in front of a bus and the Earl of Cardigan obeyed an order he knew was suicidal while mumbling something about a country that works for everyone.

The point is that the poem that Lord Tennyson dashed off just six weeks after the battle became part of what Fintan O’Toole calls ‘the English cult of heroic failure’. While you could argue that this goes right back to the Battle of Hastings, the cult was paradoxically strongest when the British Empire was at the height of its powers.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is up there with the Gordon’s death at Khartoum, Franklin’s failed expedition to find the North West Passage and Scott of the Antarctic. In the British (English) consciousness, the Norwegians were somehow not quite playing the game with their superior planning and preparations. We remember the heroic failure instead.

I’m sure that advisers at No 10 spent ages googling the date for triggering Article 50 to make sure that it did not come with the baggage of an unfortunate historical parallel. So it seems unlikely that they would have missed March 29, 1912, the date Scott and his remaining two companions died in their tent just 11 miles from a supply depot.

The Charge of the Brexit Brigade will not see Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and the rest riding boldly out towards the guns and a glorious death. Instead they are gambling with the livelihoods of millions of May’s ‘ordinary working people’ and the future of the country in whose name they claim to be ‘taking back control’.

In the historical delusions of the Brexiteers – neatly skewered by the civil service joke of ‘Empire 2.0’ – all we need to do is shake off the European shackles and rekindle old alliances with the nations of the Commonwealth.

Never mind the balance of trade, forget about shafting New Zealand farmers when we joined the EEC and ignore the fact that India has moved on and US trade is what matters to Canada. A return to the Golden Age of Free Trade awaits us if only we believe strongly enough in Brexit.

Except that there was no Golden Age, just a period of imperial dominance enforced by the Royal Navy, British Army and commercial companies against the very nations with whom we now say we will forge a new free trading partnership. As Gideon Rachman puts it in the FT today, we suffer from imperial amnesia.

And Brexiteer history also airbrushes out the reasons why we joined the EEC in the first place. The end of Empire 1.0 and the costs of the Second World War left Britain exhausted and a shadow of its former self. The failure at Suez – the biggest mistake in post-war British history up to now – had put paid to any lingering post-imperial delusions. A small island with no colonies and badly managed and outdated industries needed to look to markets closer to home.

In Brexiteer history, the recovery of Britain since 1975 has little to do with membership of the European Union and the single market or the windfall of North Sea oil and gas. Instead it was all down to the Glorious (but unfinished) Thatcherite Revolution, itself now rewritten to leave out her role in creating the single market. That revolution must now be completed and EU membership is the obstacle to achieving it.

The Brexiteers won first the referendum and then the post-referendum argument about what the vote really meant. Now you get the sense that leaving the single market and the customs union are no longer enough. Leaving the EU with no deal will not just be ‘perfectly fine’ but actually preferable.

For Theresa May ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ may be nothing more than a necessary negotiating stance. After all, if you want that rug in the bazaar for a good price you have to be prepared to walk away without it.

Except that this is not a normal negotiation. The hardline Brexiteers want there to be no deal because there cannot be any sort of compromise with the continentals. And the price has to be agreed not just with the carpet shop but also with the 26 other shopkeepers, the owners of the bazaar, the local council and the Walloons who live above the Belgian chocolate shop.

When Lucan ordered him to attack the Russians in the valley, Cardigan is meant to have replied: ‘Certainly, my lord, but allow me to point out to you that there is a battery in front, battery on each flank, and the ground is covered with Russian riflemen.’

‘I cannot help that,’ said Lucan. ‘It is Lord Raglan’s positive order that the Light Brigade is to attack the enemy.’

And so the Brexit Brigade sends the rest of us into battle proclaiming that it’s ‘the will of the people’.


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