Brexit and the politics of diversionary tactics

Ever a philosophical type, Harold Macmillan wrote in his memoirs that he never thought of sabotaging matters for his successor, Lord Home, following his decision to resign as Prime Minister in October 1963, commenting ‘E finita la commedia. It is tempting, but unrewarding, to hang around the Green Room long after the final retirement from the stage.‘ At least Supermac only had the fallout from the Profumo scandal to think about when he departed No 10. Many of his successors would have to vacate the political stage in considerably less propitious circumstances. The circumstances have, after all, arguably rarely been less propitious than the UK’s impending departure from the European Union.

Of course, David Cameron, who will leave Downing Street for the last time later today, is not the only political figure who has exited stage left as a result of Brexit. Indeed, it is curious (to say the least) who many of those who have fled the field are, for the most part, the same people who during the campaign would blissfully bang on how important it is to ‘take back control’ (while saying nothing about things like how the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is actually not independent, and how so many major firms in London have somehow managed to get away with paying little or no tax on their business). If the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom could not even control their own destinies, you have to wonder how much serious thought they had really given to a political career in the first place.

At least Johnson, Gove, and Leadsom will not have to worry about dealing with the consequences of the decision for which the electorate have now voted – unless, that is, Theresa May is feeling in an unusually magnanimous mood when appointing her first cabinet. No, the fallout from Brexit is going to weigh heaviest on those of us who do not hang around in the exalted circles of Westminster, almost certainly in the form of another recession and further squeezes on the NHS and education, even if the UK does manage to stay United. The Brexiteers are already beginning to form their excuses. Those who voted Remain, and thus trusted the experts (despite the best efforts of Mr Gove), and have pointed out the falling value of the pound and the tangible uncertainty among foreign investors in the City since the vote, are now being accused by the Leave camp of “Talking Britain down” – as if being realistic about the country’s economic outlook (given, for example, the post-Thatcher inheritance of a weak manufacturing base and the over-reliance on service industries and housing bubbles for economic growth) were now somehow unpatriotic.

Brexit is not the first time that the architects of a national trauma have upped and left, and then sought to dodge the reckoning from their actions. Such a scenario was visited upon Germany in 1918 and in the years following the Armistice. As early as August that year it was obvious that the Germans were going to lose the war – and not just to observers among the Allies, but also to the German chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff. When the British and French forces broke through the enemy lines at Amiens on 8 August, after successfully stemming the advance of the poorly planned Spring offensives, Ludendorff himself dubbed the date the “Black Day of the German army”. Later, when the news reached him that Bulgaria would surrender to the Allies on 29 September he told the government in Berlin that they would have to seek a peace agreement, and fast.

A peace agreement was reached, but not until 11 November, and it did not involve either Ludendorff, his assistant chief of staff Paul von Hindenburg, or the Kaiser. Two days before, the Kaiser had abdicated, and fled to neutral Holland. Two weeks before that, Ludendorff had gone to Sweden, fearing for his life as Germany was beset by strikes, protests and mutinies. As for Hindenburg, he made sure to absent himself from crucial meetings of the newly formed Social Democrat-dominated civilian government, established the previous month, while it pressed on with the unenviable task of formulating an armistice with the French, British and American authorities who were fast losing patience with the German military establishment.

The Weimar Republic, as the new democratic civilian government was termed, would later be dubbed the “November Criminals” for accepting a humiliating peace with the Allies, and the damaging myth took hold that Germany had not lost the Great War but had instead been on the verge of victory when it was “stabbed in the back” by left-wing elements on the home front (a reference to the strikes and protests that engulfed the country in the autumn of 1918) and Jews. It was nonsense, of course: as Professor Ian Kershaw and other historians have shown, the revolutionary turmoil that gripped Germany that autumn was a consequence, not a cause, of military defeat. Nevertheless, such rhetoric proved to be very useful in keeping the Weimar Republic more or less permanently unstable throughout its existence, and also in helping the Nazis in their ascent to power.

Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937)
Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937)

Ludendorff knew full well what he was doing when in October 1918 he openly supported the democratization of Germany: it was a textbook exercise in pure political cynicism, a subtle element of his efforts to side-step any suggestions that his errors as chief of staff might have had something to do with Germany’s impending military defeat:

I have asked His Excellency to now bring those circles to power which we have to thank for coming so far. We will therefore now bring those gentlemen into the ministries. They can now make the peace which has to be made. They can eat the broth which they have prepared for us.

The war, as far as Ludendorff, Hindenburg, and most of the German Right were concerned, had been lost by the Left. In no way would they ever admit that the incompetence of the German high command – or, for that matter, the superiority of the Allies’ strategy, manpower and resources – had been responsible. However hard those Germans who wanted democracy to succeed in their country after 1918 tried to shatter this toxic myth, it evidently was not hard enough. The consequences of this failure properly to address the military establishment’s diversionary tactics over who was really responsible for Germany’s defeat would prove lethal for millions throughout Europe over the next three decades.

Voluntarily exiting one of the world’s biggest trading blocs (after a referendum campaign characterised by myths and misinformation – which, to be fair, could be found on both sides) is obviously not as traumatic as losing a war, but the parallels between both events – of the key players departing the scene, and then others seeking to rewrite history by means of questioning the other side’s patriotism – are certainly haunting. For the UK’s equivalent of the “November Criminals”, expect the Brexiteers to come up with something like the “June Doom-mongers” every time the economy takes a knock over the next two or more years as the Brexit negotiations are hammered out.

I wrote in my previous article for Slugger of how, in what is increasingly being called an age of “post-fact politics”, it is possible wilfully to talk nonsense and not only get away with, but also profit from, it. Ludendorff and the rest of the German establishment who lost their country a war certainly got away with it in the 1920s and ’30s. The launch last Friday of Vote Leave Watch, a pressure group dedicated to reminding the Brexiteers of their campaign pledges (for instance, the £350 million per week that they promised for the NHS), is thus an encouraging sign that those who were so keen to take the UK out of the EU that they were prepared to claim anything may have a much harder time in getting away with it.