Chaos Theory

Everyone seems to be saying that Boris Johnson is doing a shocking job, and predicting that nearly all of us in Britain will lose as a result of Brexit. All I’m reading on the internet is ridicule of ‘BoJo’ and his team, which must surely be getting through to them? Unless, that is, I’m only getting messages that pander to my anti-Brexit prejudice. As I understand it that’s perfectly possible, because of the way these computer geniuses (or robots) edit and distribute the news that comes to us. In which case there will be a whole other half of the British population who will be getting entirely contrary messages, leading them to believe that Boris is right and that a negotiated or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit can put us firmly on the road to a glorious future of ‘sovereignty’ and ultimately the ‘greatness’ we abandoned by allowing ourselves to be seduced by the sirens of Brussels, and deprived of our proud blue passports. Well, maybe so; although as an educated citizen I know that the colour of our passports had little to do with the EU (we could always have stuck with blue if we’d wanted), and – much more importantly – I know as a historian that ‘sovereignty’ is a good deal more complicated than the Brexiters like to pretend. In short, even ‘sovereign’ nations need to make alliances with other countries, and if Britain’s isn’t with the EU, it will have to be with somebody else. This will hit the Little Englanders eventually, probably as they’re chewing on their chlorinated chicken courtesy of Uncle Sam. By then it will be too late.

This will be the likely impact of the present crisis on the majority of people in Britain, after the more immediate repercussions – lorry jams on the approaches to Dover, shortages of medicines and of certain foods, higher duties and so higher prices, loss of freedom of travel by Brits (as well as for those pesky foreigners ‘coming over ‘ere and doing our plumbing and picking our fruit’:, airport delays, jobs going as employers flee across the channel, and all the rest of the material effects of Brexit, have been sorted out. Those material effects could last for ages; even the Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg has predicted a wait of fifty years ( Accompanying them will probably be a deepening of the popular xenophobia that partly fuelled the Brexit movement; culminating in the death of the sort of Britain – tolerant, internationalist, multicultural – that the liberals amongst us had always taken patriotic pride in, and aspired towards if never quite achieved. By that time the UK may well have been reduced to an English – possibly even a southern English – rump, with its other nations and regions hiving off, back into the arms of the EU; heralding the final destruction of the ‘old country’, brought about by Brexit, its foolish followers, and its more knowing and cunning leaders. 

If this spells crisis for the country generally, it also creates problems, at the very least, for a small portion of its population: thinking people, that is; ‘intellectuals’ if you like, for whom Brexit – as it is currently turning out – must undermine many of their fondest assumptions. The first is that great events must have reasons,if only they could discover them, and (in the case of historians) trace them back. 

On the surface, Brexit appears utterly unreasonable. It wasn’t meant to happen. Very few people put the EU at the front of their thinking before 2016, and wanted Britain out. It was only when they were asked to vote on it that they gave it any thought at all, with their votes then mainly motivated by grievances of other kinds, which they used their votes – ones that would directly affect the outcome, for a change – to express their displeasure about. (See Right-wing press propaganda – especially Boris Johnson’s lying despatches from Brussels about ‘bendy bananas’ and the like – played a part in this. The result of the referendum was significantly influenced by new propaganda techniques (Cambridge Analytica), and foreign interference. 

Even then the vote was not supposed to be decisive, but only ‘advisory’; except that the Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron, the first of arguably the three worst premiers Britain has had in her history, had promised voters otherwise. No-one in that referendum was told or was allowed to specify what he or she was voting for. It could well have been for Britain’s remaining in the common market but exiting the other parts of the EU’s structure. That was the wise and very practical suggestion of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, but it was turned down, partly because of the personal monstering that Corbyn was subjected to at the hands of the – tax-dodging billionaire-owned – right-wing press; which also cost Labour the next General Election, in December 2019. In the meantime the facile and lying but apparently personable Boris Johnson had taken over the reins of the Government party, and kicked most of the experienced and reasonable Conservative MPs out. That left him with only relative new boys to form a government with, whose only qualification was their loyalty to Brexit and to Johnson, and whose incompetence (and indeed corruption) was soon revealed by their abject response to the Coronavirus pandemic that hit them – and all of us – in January 2020. 

It was also revealed in the negotiations that went on afterwards with the EU to try to come to some kind of trade arrangement, to at least partly save the day. Johnson himself is almost ludicrously poor at diplomacy, as had been revealed during a mercifully brief earlier spell as Foreign Secretary, and apparently – we’re told anonymously – spent most of his crucial last-minute talks with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, cracking public school anti-French jokes. While all this was going on the British public had swung significantly away from its original pro-Brexit opinion, to favour a return to the EU, if that had been possible. (That may have been as a result of elderly Brexiteers dying off and being replaced by higher-educated younger people, who had always been predominantly pro-EU.) In other words, the vote in 2016 is unlikely to have reflected the ‘people’s will’ in 2020. But by now that was too late; and in view of the violence continually threatened by Right-wing zealots a U-turn at this point might have been dangerous in any case. So here we are: hoist by a petard skilfully fashioned by clever Rightists and wielded by angry populists, with no visible means of escape. 

The point I’m making here is that chance, conspiracy and sheer idiocy appear to have played a far greater part in this whole story than has been usual in Britain’s history, which makes it difficult to analyse rationally, in the way we ‘intellectuals’ like to do. Of course there are perfectly rational aspects to it: the self-interest of the finance capitalists who helped fund Brexit, for example (afraid for the security of their tax havens, directly threatened by the EU); the unfitness-for-purpose of the the British electoral system; the understandable – if irrelevant – grievances of the people; the real mis-steps of the EU; the continuing influence of old-fashioned institutions like Eton College; the power of propaganda; perhaps the self-destruction of late-stage capitalism that Marxists would understand as a ‘rational’ – indeed a ‘natural’ – cause’.… 

All these can be isolated and analysed intellectually. But it’s the mix of them all that makes the whole event appear more ‘accidental’, stupid and confusingly messy than we’re used to, and so difficult to understand – and, more to the point, to combat – as a whole. It’s a bit like suddenly realising that the ‘laws’ of Physics don’t work everywhere; that there are universes where gravity goes up instead of down, for example (a poor one, I realise!), or that time can be bent. Or that everything is really chaos. That’s how the political world is beginning to appear to me now. So why even try to analyse it? And in which case: what’s the point of my job?

Perhaps quantum theory or post-modernism could provide the answers. But I’m too old, and too conventionally rational, to want any truck with that.

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2 Responses to Chaos Theory

  1. Tony says:

    I find it hard to believe that these last minute theatrics by the British are going to lead to a no-deal, although they have consistently thought ‘brinkmanship’ will make the EU blink at the last moment. They have been disabused of that, but probably hope a last minute agreement can make it appear at least that Johnson has driven a hard bargain, but then the reality dawns and the spinning starts….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The point I’m making here is that chance, conspiracy and sheer idiocy appear to have played a far greater part in this whole story than has been usual in Britain’s history, which makes it difficult to analyse rationally, in the way we ‘intellectuals’ like to do.”

    I think two things have been mixed up in what you have outlined. There is the strong irrational component in the push for Brexit, which you have outlined very successfully; and there is the problem of explaining this type of behaviour and ideation in a rational manner. However, I cannot see how the presence of the irrational prevents the commentator from making a rational analysis of the causes of phenomena, such as Brexit and election of Trump in 2016. As Hobsbawm points out, the literature on the causes of the Second World is minuscule compared to the vast writings on the First World War, even though the irrational is a much greater component of the former as compared to the latter. The irrationalism of the Nazi movement has never been an obstacle to explaining why war began in 1939. In fact, in general, social theorists have been pretty good at explaining the irrational.

    I believe you have been able to cogently outline a number of valid reasons for the Brexit vote, which tends to undermine your assertion that this is an instance of a kind of uncaused event. The result of Brexit will be really bad for the UK in many ways, yet a great many UK citizens and organisations will be satisfied to the point of exultation with the outcome. Similarly, Trump has been terrible for the US and the world on a number of levels; yet a sizeable proportion, close to a majority, of the voting citizenry of the US is dejected to the point of rage because there will not be four more years of his reign.

    You write that ‘It’s a bit like suddenly realising that the ‘laws’ of Physics don’t work everywhere’; however, Brexit has occurred for the most part because a large number of powerful individuals, groups and organisations have pushed very hard for it to happen. This is pretty much par for the course as far as explanations go in the social sciences.

    Liked by 1 person

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