A messy march of folly to Brexit - and beyond

LONDON —

Barbara Tuchman published her masterpiece, “The March of Folly,” in 1984. It explored what the American writer and historian called “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” Today she might have explored the march of folly by “the people” as well as governments in pursuing those harmful policies.

In the United States, the checks and balances included by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to protect against despotism did not prevent the voters and the Electoral College from choosing as their president and commander-in-chief a shameless demagogue boasting of his contempt for the constitutional principles of rule of law and the separation of powers, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin to beat Hillary Clinton - the same Putin that U.S. intelligence agencies blame for cyber attacks on her private email to damage her candidacy.

In the United Kingdom, a foolishly devised referendum on whether to remain in the European Union has split the nation and its political parties. It has split south from north, haves and have-nots, and has encouraged Celtic separatism in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Under Prime Minister Theresa May, a weak and divided government is pursuing policies contrary to the interests of its citizens. British influence in Europe has drained away. The UK is disunited, its economy is shrinking, and investment is moving abroad.

In mainland Europe populist revolts, fueled by mass migration, public insecurity, Islamist terrorism, racism and xenophobia, further threaten the future of the European Union. Its member states are unable to muster support for a common strategy to reform its dysfunctional institutions. These anti-elitist uprisings undermine respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

What happened in the United States election last November reminds us that a written constitution is no panacea. It must be buttressed by a culture of respect and it must be interpreted and applied wisely by politicians and the courts.

The justices of the American Supreme Court are chosen on political grounds and are deeply divided. The conservative majority on the Court pays no heed to international law. Its judgments have little influence abroad. The Court’s Citizens United ruling on campaign finance enables the rich and powerful to dominate federal elections in the name of free expression. It permits states to operate election procedures to obstruct the voting rights of black Americans. With one seat on the bench already vacant and three justices aged over 75, it seems likely that President Donald Trump eventually will be able to appoint several younger new judges, justices who will entrench that ideology for decades.

I used to regard the American Constitution as a model for the free world. Sadly, I no longer do so.

The UK’s system is different: parliamentary not presidential. It has a politically independent judiciary appointed on merit, enlightened in its interpretation of the unwritten British constitution, and protecting minorities against the tyranny of majorities. But as in the United States, its constitutional safeguards are fragile. When the High Court ruled that ministers had to obtain Parliament’s consent before triggering the process of exiting from the European Union, the Daily Mail attacked the judges as “enemies of the people,” and the Lord Chancellor failed to perform her duty of upholding judicial independence by warning her fellow ministers and the press against undermining the rule of law.

The UK Supreme Court will give judgment in January on whether May’s government must involve Parliament in the Brexit process. The government claims that its ancient Royal Prerogative power to make and unmake treaties enables it to act without the authority of legislation - an Act of Parliament. That is a surprising assertion from politicians who claim that leaving the EU will restore Parliamentary sovereignty. The Supreme Court is likely to reject that claim and to uphold Parliament’s supremacy, at which point the justices will face further intemperate attacks from Brexiteers.

May’s government has chosen to treat the result of the referendum as binding. She drapes herself in the Union Jack, explaining that she wants a “red, white and blue” Brexit. She discounts the views of the millions who voted to remain in the EU and comes close to accusing those who disagree with her of a lack of patriotism. She insists that the government’s negotiating strategy must remain hidden from Parliament, but has reluctantly agreed to share a little of the government’s plan.  Meanwhile, she is determined to march on, chanting her mantra “Brexit means Brexit.”

Many of those who voted to leave the EU did so in the belief that the UK would curb immigration by ending the EU right to the free movement of workers and their families. But the UK will not be allowed to end freedom of movement from the EU while retaining access to the single market - to have its cake and eat it.

For 40 years, European law has applied in the UK to the benefit of the British people. It has protected their rights as men and women and as European citizens. EU law has been woven into the fabric of UK law. The supremacy of EU law as interpreted by the European Court of Justice is the focus of passionate hostility from insular “Little Englanders” - nationalists who believe the English are better without the Scots or the Irish.

The process of weeding EU law from UK law will be complex and lengthy, resulting in decades of uncertainty. It will put at risk the position of British citizens in the EU and European citizens in the UK. That was not understood or explained during the referendum campaign. It may be beyond the capacity of May’s government to do so, just as the process of leaving the EU may founder or be reversed.

Hope dies last. I still hope that at least the British march of folly will be turned back when those who voted to leave the EU realize what is at stake. But neither that, nor an end to America’s march of folly, will happen soon. 

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

Author Infomation

Anthony Lester
Anthony Lester
Anthony Lester of Herne Hill QC is a Liberal Democrat member of the British House of Lords and a barrister who practices constitutional and human rights law in London.
  • -4

    Burning Bush

    This article dismisses all the Americans who voted for Trump and all the Brits who voted for Brexit simply as "folly".

    Clearly written from an elitist "we are inherently right" perspective.

    Very very biased editorial.

    And name withheld, no surprise there.

  • 5

    Strangerland

    This article dismisses all the Americans who voted for Trump and all the Brits who voted for Brexit simply as "folly".

    Sounds like the hit the nail on the head.

  • 1

    Godfrey King

    This article dismisses all the Americans who voted for Trump and all the Brits who voted for Brexit simply as "folly".

    Yes....and by the once epitome of accurate news reporting (or hiding behind) the once respected name of 'Reuters'. It is not only assuming all those who voted for and argued for Bexit it is the false assertions made without thought that continuously concerns me. Take this line "For 40 years, European law has applied in the UK to the benefit of the British people". No it has not....it is true to say that over 40 years the initial Trading Only Common Market the British population were pledged (and held back from them the 'Ever Closer Union') a creeping sore replaced British Law with European Law including threats to our Monarchy...itself (it should not be forgotten) being that our Queen is Head of State of such as Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth Countries. Oh how I am sure the little Europeans and sneering anonimous writers would love to see that demolished. But you ain't going to do it.. Whoever you are your continued insulting tones try to meddle in the democratic process and try to appear smarter than you actually are with false evidence or no evidence at all....just wishful thinking and words designed to support your prejudice.

    ** "Many of those who voted to leave the EU did so in the belief that the UK would curb immigration by ending the EU right to the free movement of workers and their families". **

    Oh...you know so do you? You are now predicting something which you have no idea if it will happen or not. Did you not hear to-day Theresa May say, effectively, if a deal can not be done then we will not stay in the 'single market'. As has been stated many times over, but such as yourself wanting to continue this barrage of false assertions in the hopes if you state them enough someone will believe you, the European Trade with us is such that they spend more with us than we do with Europe. So, as we wish, whilst the EU is spending more long fruitless years negotiating on behalf of the eventually dwindling block of countries (20 years and they still have not done a deal with the USA.....ours with them is on the table.) we will trade with whoever we please.

    Once again I repeat in these pages.....the EU's Auditors have refused to sign its books off for 22 years now, it is an administrative, economic, judicial and increasingly social mess. Of course we would want to stay in touch and help out and do what we can...we are friends of the peoples of Europe....but we are choosing not to be friends with its political and administrative area...two different things. Of course, you want to smear us as xenophobic, hate all foreigners. It is a lie...come out and say directly that is what I am and I will sue you and Reuters. How dare you cast apertions on the intelligence and integrity of millions of people. Hillary Clinton tried that and look where that got her.

    Brexit Means Brexit which means the UK will no longer be part of the European Union as voted for by the British people on June 23rd 2016 That is what we initially signed up for and all added since will be repealed. What we might mutually salvage from that will be a mutual conveniance....no more than that and as WE please.

    If I look for a reply, and I am very busy but took time to counter some of your mindless and ill thought out assertions, I will expect you to add your real name to your words. And I sincerely hope Reuters are not wasting money by paying you for such a waste of time.

  • -1

    sangetsu03

    These anti-elitist uprisings undermine respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

    Perhaps the people have become tired of the elitists looting the middle and lower classes to enrich themselves and their friends. The people have become tired of the elitists using democracy to divide and rule the people, to incite class and racial hatred. The people have become tired of the rule of law which applies to themselves, and not to the elitists. And the people are tired of being treated as serfs and servants, and have become tired of being told by the elite about what is right, wrong, good, or bad. The people have done the only thing they can, and use their ever dwindling power at the voting booth to put their foot up the backsides of the elite. And unlike how the article paints it, the countries still belong to the people, who have the right to vote as they wish (for the time being) for better or worse.

    Funny that post-Brexit, Britain is doing much better than mainland Europe, 180 degrees opposite of what the elitists claimed would happen.

  • 0

    Ben Shearon

    Alternatively: https://medium.com/incerto/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e2d0577#.uj7zkadk0

  • 4

    rainyday

    Very very biased editorial.

    Its clearly labelled as an opinion piece, which by its nature is supposed to be biased in favor of whatever position the author is advocating.

    And name withheld, no surprise there.

    This would appear to be a glitch specific to Japan Today, the name of the author (Anthony Lester) is clearly stated on the top of the article on other sites which published it. Not everything is a conspiracy.

    Funny that post-Brexit, Britain is doing much better than mainland Europe, 180 degrees opposite of what the elitists claimed would happen.

    Brexit hasn't happened yet, so there is no post-Brexit Britain yet. So nobody can at this point say whether or not what experts have said would happen after Brexit has or hasn't happened. The ultimate consequences of Brexit, good or bad, will be determined by what kind of agreement the UK reaches with the EU, and nobody has any idea what that will be at this point.

  • -2

    Burning Bush

    I guess the authorship issue has been corrected.

    A member of the "House of Lords" took the time out of his busy day to pen the official opinion we all should have.

    So how does one become a "Lord" in the UK system, is it by hard work and daily toil, being voted in by the people, or is it a my granddaddy was a rich guy type system?

  • 3

    turbotsat

    Burning Bush: So how does one become a "Lord" in the UK system, is it by hard work and daily toil, being voted in by the people, or is it a my granddaddy was a rich guy type system?

    It's probably not someone who has to worry in the slightest about the Home Islands' unemployment rate or labor participation rate.

  • 3

    rainyday

    A seat in the House of Lords is an appointed rather than elected position.

    Its an archaic, pointless system. Its elitist. The guy writes in a condescending tone. All true.

    Not sure how any of these observations in and of themselves address the substance of what he is saying though. I guess it is easier to bash the person than it is to counter their arguments.

  • 1

    turbotsat

    rainyday: I guess it is easier to bash the person than it is to counter their arguments.

    I'll bite!

    Lester: Meanwhile, she is determined to march on, chanting her mantra “Brexit means Brexit.”

    What?!?! Brexit doesn't mean Brexit???

  • 3

    Simon Foston

    Burning BushJAN. 09, 2017 - 01:08PM JST

    So how does one become a "Lord" in the UK system, is it by hard work and daily toil, being voted in by the people, or is it a my granddaddy was a rich guy type system?

    Seeing as you ask, it was originally a purely hereditary system - you would get a title from a king or queen and a seat in the House that would stay in the family down the generations. Then life peers were introduced in 1958, their seats are not passed down to their heirs. The Prime Minister decides who should become life peers, although the other party leaders get to make recommendations, and then the Sovereign appoints them. Typically the life peers are retired politicians, successful business people, former civil servants, etc. Most of the hereditary lords lost their seats in 1999, although not their titles, but there are still about 92 left in the House.

  • 3

    rainyday

    What?!?! Brexit doesn't mean Brexit???

    I believe the point he was making is that merely saying "Brexit means Brexit" tells us nothing useful about what the government defines Brexit as, and thus which of the many forms of "Brexit" the government will pursue in its negotiations with the EU. The use of the phrase just obfuscates rather than clarifies what Brexit in practice will actually look like, which should be of concern to people on both sides of the issue.

  • 0

    choiwaruoyaji

    The premise is that the EU has been a wonderful success.

    How could the Brits possibly want to leave such a wonderfully successful project?

  • 2

    M3M3M3

    I think Brexit is going to be a huge disaster for Britain in many ways that we can't even begin to anticipate today. While some of the concerns the Leavers have may be legitimate, voting for Brexit could actually exacerbate many these problems.

    Take refugees as one example, currently the EU Dublin regulations allow EU countries to deport asylum seekers back to the first EU country they land in. Once the UK leaves the EU they will also be out of the Dublin agreement. The UK will not even be able to access the EU fingerprint databases let alone send asylum seekers back to Greece or Italy. It's highly unlikely that the UK would be allowed to sign back onto the Dublin agreement once they have left the EU. We could see many more Calais Jungle camps reopening, but this time it wouldn't matter whether refugees have ever been arrested or fingerprinted somewhere in the EU. Even refugees who have already been granted asylum in Germany or Sweden could rip up their papers and come to Britain claiming to be fresh asylum seekers. There will be no way for Britain to verify who they really are. The situation will be an even bigger disaster if the French decided that the border should move back to Dover.

    Britain will undoubtedly have to implement the strictest pre-authorization travel system in the world, even for those arriving by ferry or train. But even that probably won't stop people trying to reach the halfway point in the channel on homemade rafts, something they've had little incentive to attempt so far because of the Dublin regulations, but this could change.

  • 0

    JeffLee

    "The UK will not even be able to access the EU fingerprint databases..."

    How do you know that? Security and intelligence agencies of a wide variety of countries routinely share info, regardless of political or economic agreements.

  • -1

    M3M3M3

    @JeffLee

    How do you know that? Security and intelligence agencies of a wide variety of countries routinely share info, regardless of political or economic agreements.

    I'm assuming this based on a.) the privacy laws surrounding refugee information are already extremely strict even within the EU and there isn't going to be much support for amending them just to benefit a former EU member, and b.) because there would be no logical reason for the UK to require access.

    What possible benefit would either the EU or the UK gain from sharing or having access? Even if the Eurodac database showed that an asylum seeker had filed asylum applications in every single EU member state before arriving in the UK, so what? The UK will have absolutely no legal right to deport them to the EU if the Dublin regulations no longer apply. The UK might as well just assume that everyone is already in the EU database since it will make no difference if they actually are or aren't. Brexit really means Brexit.

  • -2

    turbotsat

    rainyday: I believe the point he was making is that merely saying "Brexit means Brexit" tells us nothing useful about what the government defines Brexit as, and thus which of the many forms of "Brexit" the government will pursue in its negotiations with the EU. The use of the phrase just obfuscates rather than clarifies what Brexit in practice will actually look like, which should be of concern to people on both sides of the issue.

    I wouldn't say that's what he meant. Most of the article is complaining about Brexit and hoping it's abandoned, including the last bit tying in with his 'march of folly' theme. 'Chanting her mantra' seems intended to make her a mindless idiot.

    Lester: ... Meanwhile, she is determined to march on, chanting her mantra “Brexit means Brexit.” ... Hope dies last. I still hope that at least the British march of folly will be turned back when those who voted to leave the EU realize what is at stake. But neither that, nor an end to America’s march of folly, will happen soon. (end of article)

    But what is he expecting? May to expound on the finer points of Brexit policy at length in press conferences, with journalists? How long would the journalists permit that tack to go on?

    It seems she's tailoring the message to the audience pretty well with "Brexit means Brexit".

  • 0

    gkamburoff

    We are entering Dark Ages. Many of our national leaders, from Trump to Duterte to Putin to Kim Jong Un are ego-narcissists, with emotional vulnerability to being triggered into unstable behavior.

    And now we have nuclear weapons, the ones Trump asked why we can't use.

  • -3

    sybil30

    I can understand people selecting the facts which support their arguments. What Lester has done is make up a lot of nonsense which he knows isn't true and pass it off as informed opinion. It further illustrates why Brexit is the right way to go.

    I am surprised at JT publishing such an ill-informed piece.

    • Moderator

      A better response from you would be to explain why you think it is an ill-informed piece. That's what the discussion board is for.

  • -1

    JeffLee

    "I'm assuming this...."

    I thought as much. The Remainers are doing a lot of "assuming" these days in the guise of "facts" The problem is that nearly all their past assumptions have been wrong.

  • -1

    M3M3M3

    @JeffLee

    I thought as much. The Remainers are doing a lot of "assuming" these days in the guise of "facts" The problem is that nearly all their past assumptions have been wrong.

    It seems like you are doing alot more assuming here than I am JeffLee. It's a fact that the UK will no longer be entitled to share EU refugee databases once they leave the EU. Do you dispute this? You are the one assuming a radical change in the law will be passed and the UK will somehow be granted access, I am simply assuming the law will be followed and they won't. But as I mentioned above, it will make no difference.

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