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20 December 2018

The Charge of the Light Brexit Brigade

Into the valley of death
Rode May's two hundred
Europhobe to the right of them
Opposition to the left of them
Country in front of them
Volleyed and thundered
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville

An old story

The year is 1854, Britain is fighting the Crimean War in alliance with France and the remnants of the Ottoman empire, and against the rising Russian superpower. On the 25th of October the British are acting in the valley of Balaclava with a large number of forces. With Russian forces retreating from their redoubts in the southern side of the valley, General George Bingham, in command of the British army, orders the Light Brigade of the Cavalry to prevent the enemy from withdrawing with them the artillery pieces stationed in those redouts. What followed became known as the "Charge of the Light Brigade", a largely mindless and unexplained massacre of British troops.

Commanding the British cavalry is Major James Brudenell, brother-in-law with General Bingham. The two men loathe each other and do not see eye-to-eye. The order of immediate attack from General Bingham is carried to Major Brudenell by Captain Louis Edward Nolan. Possibly from a combination of misexplanation by Nolan and Brudenell's contempt towards Bingham, the order is understood as a charge on a different redoubt, on the opposite end of the valley bottom. The 670 units of the Light Brigade are sent charging across almost 2 km of open field against a large and well entrenched artillery battery.

It is an act of sheer folly, that is never corrected. Brudenell likely regards it as a personal tirade from Bingham. Some accounts hint at Nolan trying to stop the cavalry already in motion, but he is one of the first victims of the charge. Even though the Light Brigade manages to reach enemy lines, it is decimated on its way; neither the British heavy cavalry, nor the French cavalry in the valley dare to follow. After their retreat, discounting dead, wounded and prisoners, the Light Brigade was down to less than 200 units.

This military disaster helps explaining in different ways the political quagmire in which the UK finds itself today trying to exit EU. One of the most extraordinary aspects is how the Balaclave massacre was promptly celebrated as an act of braveness.

Just six weeks after the event, The Examiner newspaper published a poem penned by Alfred Lord Tennyson that bared the infamous title: "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Tennyson leaves aside any reference to command mishap and instead glorifies the sense of duty of the fallen and the bravery of those that managed to escape from certain death.

This spectacular spin on the story endured in popular culture to this day, in subsequent literature, in cinema and in music. The first motion picture re-enacting events dates from 1936, with remakes appearing decades later. Even foreign artists took the massacre as theme.

It is hard to imagine the French glorifying Waterloo or the Greeks singing the fall of Constantinople, but in British culture things are slightly different. Disaster, failure, massacre, all fine if it can highlight courage in face of the adverse. An important element of europhobic (and nationalist) rhetoric, come what may, braveness all shall withstand.

The Trooper

Bruce Dickinson, a notable artist and europhobe, has in recent decades greatly contributed to the popular glorification of the Balaclava massacre. Image source: Wikipaedia (original licence applies).

Thought entrenchment

The most interesting parallel with Brexit is of a different nature. Taking the accounts from both French and Russian commands on the battle ground that day in Balaclava, the frontal change against entrenched artillery could only be described as an act of madness. A pointless loss of life from which no advantage could be gained. Why then did it ever took place?

On receiving the order, Major Brudenell must have certainly thought similarly, but still did not sway. Either he perceived it as plausible for his arch-rival to submit his cavalry to such an ordeal, or was unable to confront his commanding antagonist. Brudenell was at least thoughtful enough not to send the heavy cavalry after the Light Brigade, which could have even changed the fate of the war.

While it is not possible to know for sure what happened exactly in that inglorious day, the feud between the two commanding officers certainly played a role. Entrenched in their bickering the two men were not able build the bridge necessary in extraordinary circumstances. Sounds familiar?

The quagmire

Returning to Britain with a sealed agreement to exit the EU, prime minister Theresa May did not chose to face Parliament or entail negotiations with those that can ratify it. Instead she opted for touring the country, while at the same time assailing democratic procedures to the extent of her Government being deemed in contempt of Parliament. Theresa May is an entrenched primed minister, hopelessly seeking a way forwards without moving. So far all she managed was to postpone the day of the charge of her own light brigade.

The motion of no confidence moved against her by her party's europhobes did not provide for a resounding victory, but at least laid down the cards on the table and showed who is who. To hers two hundred, May must now find other 125 MPs to ratify the agreement and move on to the next phase of negotiations.

Those necessary MP votes she will not find to her right; in this story the Conservative europhobes and the DUP play the role of the Russian artillery. To succeed she must do what Major Brudenell did not, leaver her trench, reach across the valley of the Commons and negotiate with the opposition.

Easy it certainly wont be, but for sure better than charging mindlessly along the valley. Instead of threatening Parliament with "her deal or else", she should instead demonstrate that the shape of a future relation with the EU is largely left open. First settle the score with the EU and cement the UK's reputation as a reliable negotiating partner before starting to design a new UK.

The number of MPs required to ratify the agreement with the EU means that Labour must be on board. The price demanded by Labour in exchange will be high: a general election. None other could be expected, but that is where the negotiation starts.

And would a general election be such a high price to pay? The Conservative party remains ahead in polls and with the exit agreement ratified parties can then focus on the future relationship with the EU and the UK's place in a globalised world. Nothing is yet lost, nothing is yet won.

The end game

Past the history and the literature, a disorderly exit from the EU, without a ratified withdrawal agreement, on the 29th of March continues to appear as the most likely outcome. It is not only the prime minister who is entrenched, every one else is entrenched too, fearing the electoral consequences of reaching out across the valley.

This concerns primarily Jeremy Corbyn, himself a lukewarm europhobe and leading a party that could be as divided as the Conservatives. Moreover, his personal disdain for Theresa May has become increasingly apparent. Corbyn could well be playing the role of General Bingham in this version of the story.

Other possible outcomes look at best remote. Be it for cancelling the exit procedure and remaining in the EU, or staging a second referendum, the popular and parliamentary support is lacking. More importantly, none of these strategies would help healing the deep divide running along the country; much to the contrary.

If no one rises to the extraordinary circumstances, May shall be facing an entrenched Parliament coming the ides of January. She will do no more than launching her government and her country into a senseless and devastating charge.

And the massacre of May's two hundred shall be sang for decades to come.

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