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As the Fog of Getting Brexit Done Begins to Settle, What’s Next for Britain?

Unmoored from Europe and uncertain of how to tighten the UK’s relationship with the US, what is Boris Johnson’s vision post-Brexit?
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Westminster, London, UK © Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock

January 31, 2020 10:03 EDT

The week began with a tragic patch of fog in California, continued with the smoke-and-mirrors diplomacy of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in the Middle East, and is ending with Boris Johnson kicking off his nation’s great adventure into the mists of the future, the great unknown. What’s the forecast? Eleven months of unabated and ever thickening political and economic fog as the non-negotiable cut-off date for establishing a new relationship with Europe has been defined for the last day of the year.

On Sunday, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter pilot promised to get to the group’s destination on time for a 12 p.m. girls’ basketball game. They encountered thick fog and, minutes before reaching their destination, nine people perished. The British people hope that their new pilot — who has made the conscious choice of flying his vehicle into the fog of historical uncertainty to meet a deadline of his own creation — will have more luck.

A week that began with Kobe Bryant’s demise continued with the long-delayed, but suddenly accelerated announcement of US president Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” for the Middle East. What most people noticed upon discovering its contents was that its terms, requirements and recommendations demonstrated that its authors hadn’t the foggiest notion of the history and culture of the region, to say nothing of their disregard of the authority of international law.

With the aim of correcting the errors of the past and replacing the fog of war with what they believed was the sunshine of peace and prosperity, the readings of all the political meters tell us that the Trump team is headed for a crash that resembles a diplomatic remake of “Black Hawk Down.”

The week will draw to a close at midnight on Friday, January 31, with the Brexit helicopter finally taking off to hover for the next 11 months over an agitated sea of hoped-for transition while crossing across a multitude of fogbanks during that time.

Euronews sums it up: “Johnson has made clear he wants to reach a long-term deal with the EU as quickly as possible, but EU negotiators have warned that the deadline is unrealistic.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The ideal quality of a political program that will excite a populist politician’s base long before the obvious consequences of the program or policy can become apparent.

Contextual Note

Americans experienced the Battle of Mogadishu and the downing of two military helicopters in 1993 as a humiliation for the government and its policies. But America being the nation where there’s always a silver lining or a light at the end of the tunnel, it was also as a moment in which individual American heroism could emerge in a form that Hollywood could successfully exploit less than a decade later, reviving Americans’ faith in individual courage and valor.

The war and chaos of Somalia continues to this day, along with US military presence. As a matter of ideological principle, the US refuses to abandon what it considers a theater of the war on terror, but despite its technology, sheer fire power and resolve, the US hasn’t been able to provide even a glimmer of stability. Not one of the four presidents since that battle has found a way of dealing with the contradictions of the region. The fog of voluntary misunderstanding is too thick.

In a 2003 article published by the Harvard Business Review referencing the film, Thomas W. Britt cites the work of researchers who “studied these soldiers to understand the psychological impact of working in a situation where the mission is unclear and success a remote possibility. Their studies reveal that the soldiers didn’t find the threat of battle hardest to endure. What they found so discouraging was that they couldn’t do the job they were trained to do.”

As the battle to resolve Brexit begins, should this serve as a warning to Boris Johnson? How clear is Boris about his mission? Is success more than a remote possibility? Did he even have a mission other than that of finding and exploiting a theme that would propel him to 10 Downing Street? His electoral slogan before the December elections was “Get Brexit done.” With no visibility about what “done” might mean, navigating in the fog of his own desire to leave his mark on history, Johnson reduced his policy to simply defining two deadlines: the first, an artificially imposed date at which, like George W. Bush in 2003, he might unfurl his banner and announce that his mission was accomplished.

That first date is today, January 31. It arrived all by itself, no effort required. The clocks are working. The hours and minutes have been ticking off, even if Big Ben has — for reasons unrelated to Brexit — gone silent. At midnight Brussels time, Johnson can savor victory.

The second date is December 31, 2020. The UK prime minister has ensured that there can be no turning back, that everything must be accomplished by that date. The helicopter is on its way and the basketball game will start at the planned time. It’s time to hurry, even if the weather isn’t that great.

Many commentators have seen the hoped-for success of Brexit, at best, as only a remote possibility. And that’s only supposing there aren’t too many fog warnings along the way. Worse, nobody has an idea of what success might look like in geopolitical terms. How will people in the UK and abroad see Britain’s place in the world? Johnson seemed to be counting on Trump, whose electoral success, and to some extent his personality, he tried to imitate. But the fog of political uncertainty has become so thick in Washington that if Trump survives the current impeachment drama, polls indicate he could easily lose this year’s election. Unmoored from Europe, uncertain of how to tighten the UK’s relationship with the US, what is Johnson’s vision? 

Like the soldiers of “Black Hawk Down,” the non-political actors of the British economy will be brave and courageous. But if they don’t know where they stand in the global economy and power network, will they be able to accomplish a mission they no longer understand? It isn’t a question of cowardice or confusion. It’s a question of getting a sense of where this is all leading.

What about Dominic Cummings’ proposed massive reform of the civil service? Will the UK find its entire government and social infrastructure in a situation where the people who make the system work feel that, like the soldiers cited in the study mentioned above, they can’t “do the job they were trained to do?”

Historical Note

Boris Johnson can celebrate this fateful day simply because it has officially arrived. In practical terms, nothing has changed. Everything remains to be defined, from borders and customs procedures to the fine details of a multitude of laws and regulations. The fog of contrary intentions and uncharted negotiations will be thickening over the next 11 months.

But like the Trump-Kushner’s team’s approach to the “deal of the century” in the Middle East, Johnson appears to believe that deep problems of identity and community that govern people’s lives and spirits can be solved by imagining cleverly calculated trade-offs focused on the self-interest of the negotiators and the supposed competence of the technocrats.

When a military strategist looks at the map of the terrain, everything is clear except the real conditions on the ground. In the case of Brexit as of February 1, there isn’t even a map. When the troops set foot on the ground, they discover that they have to deal with the wind, rain or sweltering heat, all of which makes the experience seem far less rational than the theoretical strategy and tactics formulated beforehand. Even more significantly, they begin to realize that they also have to deal with the fog of their own misunderstanding and sheer ignorance of a situation they’ve never been in on a terrain they’ve never seen. 

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Boris claims to be a student of history and has even authored historical books. Apart from his adulation of Winston Churchill, has he seriously reflected on the events of the 20th century?  The (ongoing) chain of continually tragic events that are the consequences of Britain’s most monumentally influential initiative of the past century, the 1917 Balfour Declaration — a doomed exercise in map drawing — should have taught Boris that you need more than a map in your head or even on paper to make politics work.

Today’s date, January 31, is purely symbolic. December 31 represents a true challenge. Reaching the divorce agreement with Europe won’t be easy. The Europeans believe it’s a goal impossible to achieve by the end of the year. But the map that shows where the UK sits in the global community after that date has yet to be drawn up. The border passing through the Irish Sea was a clever invention, but even that will be fraught with new unforeseen consequences. Will the UK itself remain intact? Nobody knows.

The fog that is already setting in that will make even the perception of the details to be included in the future Brexit map a daunting challenge. They must become visible through the steaming vapor before the map can be drawn. Navigating Britain’s ship of state — or the helicopter of state, in its modern version — is likely to prove an impossible task. Go Boris! Now’s your chance. Get it done! And the fog be damned!

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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