Brexit as tragedy, hubris and payback

There is a modest literature on military disasters.  Over the three thousand years or so years of recorded war – a period that has offered plenty of time for practice - leaders during battles have consistently made appalling mistakes.  The literature identifies a frequent common cause.

It suggests that the overwhelming majority of these catastrophes – episodes that typically involve appalling loss of life and which, crucially, look almost inexplicably stupid after the fact – follow a very particular pattern.  In the heat of battle, the on-field leader is killed and his number two is obliged to take over at short notice.

The on-field leader has – typically – been selected and schooled for the appointed role.  He is ‘a leader’.  He is strategic and visionary.  He is agile, flexible and fast.  As the unavoidable messiness of battle unfolds, he ceaselessly adapts to circumstances.  He makes decisions.  He issues instructions.  He commands the military machine at his disposal.

Of course, he does not implement these decisions.  He is not especially concerned with which particular platoon is deployed, which cavalry division is sent to charge, which band of archers fires from the battlements.  These things are the responsibility of his number two, his senior lieutenant.  The senior lieutenant has mastery over the machine: he knows its component parts and the chains of command that hold it together.  He knows the rules and procedures that make the machine function.

He is not a leader.  The reason he has risen to the esteemed rank of second-in-command – to this position of extraordinary power – is because he is truly gifted at making the machine work.  He is not a leader.  At no point in his rise to power has he had to depend on character traits such as strategic vision, or agile thinking, or adaptability in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.  He is careful, procedural, detailed, mechanical.  His entire personality is geared towards the precise implementation of his leader’s decisions.

But, suddenly, he is in charge.  His job now is to make decisions of a kind that are not merely unfamiliar to him – they are psychologically impossible for him.  He is actually constitutionally unable to do the job now assigned him.

Yet do the job he must!  He is in the heat of battle!  It is his duty!  So he does what he knows.  He sticks to the existing plan, and he implements it.  No matter how foolish, risky or even mad.  The plan was to march in that direction.  News arrives that it is a blind valley.  It will be suicide.  No matter.  It is the plan.  Onward we must march.


It gets worse.  Surely there are others – siren voices, if you will – who can see that they are marching towards suicide?  Yes, of course there are.  Can you not hear their cries?  But the machine – the military machine – is finely tuned, the chains of command are the chains of command, the smooth operation of the system has been endlessly refined and improved.

And – guess what?  The person who knows the machine best of all, the person that has spent a lifetime learning the machine, coming to understand its mechanisms, that person is now in charge!  The person in charge is now quite literally the person best equipped to make the machine do whatever it must – and best equipped, too, to ignore, nullify and overcome the murmurs, shouts and screams of warning.

Catastrophe ensues.  A hideous confluence of the particular characteristics of a certain kind of system; the inevitable characteristics of a particular kind of un-leader within that system; and the sudden disappearance of the on-field leader.  The history of battle is littered with examples.  It happens again and again and again, for thousands of years.

Do I dare even describe the analogy with Brexit?


Yes I fucking do.  Theresa May is not merely the most useless individual to have the job of Prime Minister in my lifetime; she is, constitutionally and psychologically, not actually equipped to do the job.  She is an un-leader, installed suddenly following the unexpected disappearance of the actual leader.  She is, I am sure, doing what she thinks is right; but only in the way the on-field lieutenant thinks he is doing the right thing by marching his troops towards certain death.

Around her, not just the Conservative Party but – and this, for me at least, is the most awful part of this - the entire political edifice of parliament is a quasi-militarised machine.  Both Government and Opposition (both, of course, "Her Majesty’s") comprise a system of refined and ancient rules and procedures, of arcane job titles, of mysterious rituals familiar only to in-group specialists, remarkably analogous to Britain’s armed and security forces.  May is a genuine expert in all this – how else could she have served as Home Secretary for so many years?

So there can be and have been and will be no end of noises and warnings and complaints, including tweets and reports and marvelous marches.   The evidence of the madness will accumulate and, in due course, the survivors’ stories will fill documentaries and history books with tales of bewilderment. 

This may have all started as the last contortion of Britain's imperial legacy, but the awful, hideous lesson of history is that, with this un-leader and this system, the end is inevitable.

We are going to have to learn the hard way.  I, for one, am wearing my thickest chain-mail.


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