Most politicians on the UK left and the right know that leaving the EU without an exit agreement would be a national calamity. So why have almost all refused to do anything to halt the slide toward a catastrophic no-deal Brexit?

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By Ian Buruma*

Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open.

A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.

Most politicians on the left and the right – including Prime Minister Theresa May, who before the Brexit referendum was in favor of Britain remaining in the EU – know better. And yet almost all refuse to do anything to halt the slide toward a catastrophic no-deal exit. Proposals in Parliament to seek a delay or to consider alternatives to May’s unpopular exit strategy were voted down. Party politics, jingoistic media, and a weird obliviousness to anything outside the British Isles have apparently paralyzed the collective will of British politicians. Instead of acting to avoid the worst, they delude themselves that more talks and more concessions from Brussels will somehow bail Britain out at the last minute.

This peculiar spectacle of national suicide, while unusual, is not entirely unprecedented. Japan’s drift toward a calamitous war with the US in 1941 is one example. True, there are obvious differences: Britain is not threatening to go to war with anybody, despite all the nostalgic guff about Spitfires and Dunkirk, and Japanese democracy, such as it was, had been pretty much strangled by military factions and authoritarian state control. But the similarities are remarkable.

A relatively small number of militarist hotheads, spurred by quasi-fascist ideologues and mostly middle-ranking officers, actually wanted war with the West. Most politicians, including generals and admirals, knew that it would be madness to provoke a clash with a vastly superior military and industrial power. But they were somehow unable or unwilling to stop it. Some even parroted the extremist rhetoric of the hotheads without believing it – a bit like May pandering to the hard Brexiteers.

The main strategist of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, a highly intelligent man who had studied at Harvard and knew the US very well, had been a vocal opponent of the war. Hoping against hope that negotiations would prevent an all-out war, he still did his duty and devised the plan. Prince Konoe Fumimaro, the prime minister, whose son was a Princeton undergraduate, wanted to avoid a war with the US. He kept asking the Americans for more meetings, while sending out confusing signals and hoping for impossible concessions demanded by Japanese hardliners whom he was too weak and indecisive to resist.

There was much talk of deadlines to be met or extended. As with the British Brexit negotiations with the EU, it was never quite clear to the Americans what the Japanese really wanted. Indeed, it wasn’t clear to the Japanese themselves. The last hope of men who saw disaster looming but refused to act was that more talks with the Americans would save them. In the end, the Americans were tired of talking. As a result, millions of people died, and Japan was almost totally destroyed.

The immediate response among the Japanese people on learning of the Pearl Harbor attack was a kind of relief. At last there was some clarity. Anything was better than the endless shillyshallying. Now that Japan was truly on its own, the Japanese version of the bulldog spirit might somehow see them through. Like the British, Japanese, too, have a perverse yearning for splendid isolation. And fighting the Western imperialists was at least more honorable than trying to beat the Chinese into submission with massacres.

It is quite possible that a no-deal Brexit would have a similar effect on the British. One cannot blame people for growing heartily sick of the bickering in Parliament and the endless talks with the EU that never seem to go anywhere. There is only so much uncertainty people can take; it is better to know the worst.

Much of the British press, though unconstrained by the censorship that stifled Japanese opinion in the 1930s and 1940s, has been as jingoistic as the Japanese wartime media. Decades of anti-EU propaganda might have persuaded many Britons to put up with the privations that will follow a hard Brexit. Many would no doubt blame the lack of goods, the higher prices, the long lines at entry ports, and the loss of jobs on those bloody foreigners. (Japanese nationalists still blame US intransigence for Pearl Harbor.)

But even if all that comes to pass, disillusion will soon set in, just as it did in Japan once the euphoria over Pearl Harbor had faded. British cities won’t be bombed. Britain won’t be invaded and occupied. One hopes that nobody will be killed. But Britain’s influence will be greatly reduced, its economy will shrink, and most people will be worse off. The main figures behind a hard Brexit – the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Jacob Rees-Mogg – will probably be fine. But it will be no use blaming only them. It is the people who knew better, but didn’t do enough to stop it, who should be most ashamed.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.  Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, published here with permission.

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