For those Britons who wanted to remain in the European Union, Brexit is demoralizing and draining. Yet as this chaotic and sordid episode of our history unfolds — with the prime minister forced to beg Brussels to extend the March 29 deadline for leaving the EU — I can’t help but feel better about one aspect of my life.
Brexit has helped me come to terms with the fact that I’m a poor planner. This failing has always weighed on me. Its professional and financial consequences have ranged from mildly negative to catastrophic. Now I see that this isn’t my fault. I am British, and we British have finally revealed ourselves to be truly terrible at planning things.
If you’re as surprised by that statement as you are by the voluntary pandemonium of Britain’s current politics, let me explain: The organized, sober Britain you thought you knew only appeared that way because the French and the Germans managed to force us to run the country according to their rules.
I am British, and we British have finally revealed ourselves to be truly terrible at planning things.
For the last 40 years, Britain has been sustained by French planification (yes, they have a word for taking a project and “planifying” it) and by German effectiveness in implementing the planified plan. While the EU was making everything work and generally improving lives for 500 million people, Britain built a reputation for innovation and pragmatism. This impression was achieved mainly by spending all the money we had to make London look great, while the provinces stagnated and the media stoked resentment of the EU’s purported takeover of our sovereignty. And that, of course, is why we have Brexit.
Cavalier behavior by Britons is, in fact, nothing new. We were rescued in the nick of time by the planifiers and the implementers of Europe back in the early 1970s, after heading helplessly down the post-imperial toilet in the decades after World War II. Without Europe, we would have continued our descent right into the sewer.
How did we manage to succeed before the EU? The answer: colonial adventure. Britain’s success was built on battle, followed by dominion and plunder. What is a battle anyway if not the acme of chaos? From the Battle of Hastings in 1066, one of the foundational events of “England,” to the Battle of Britain against Hitler’s Luftwaffe, victory emerged by the slenderest of margins from an entirely unpredictable melee. Almost any battle could have gone either way, despite claims of military genius for some generals. The fact that Britain won more than it lost has more to do with stubbornness — a trait that now drives our government to follow through on the self-destructive “leave means leave” slogan.
When I am not writing novels, I have a day job in which I work with people from every one of the 27 other EU member states. They are all better at planning than I am. Greeks and Cypriots, Bulgarians, Croatians, Estonians and Maltese. Every single one of them. They coordinate things, they liaise, they make Excel spreadsheets that I don’t know how to open. All I can do is admire them and blame my failure to adhere to their “critical path” timelines on the fact that I am “a creative.”
Thanks to the third-raters of the backbenches in the houses of Parliament and the tenth-raters of Theresa May’s Cabinet, I no longer feel bad about this. A crazy disregard for consequences and blind faith that someone else will make things work are obviously genetic. I can no more fight it than I can truly overcome my affection for tea, stodgy meat pies and drizzling rain.
The DNA test I took a couple of years ago proved that I am descended from Vikings who arrived in Britain a millennium ago, but I knew that in my heart long before the swab touched my cheek. (The larger genetics puzzle is how the Vikings who didn’t come to Britain turned into placid Scandinavians who are really rather good at planning — better than the French and Germans, in fact. Did all the lunatics leave for Wales and Northumberland on the longboats, risking a watery grave for the sake of plunder, while the sensible types remained in the fjords, waiting for the EU to come along?)
So it is with relief that I am able now to see the chaos of Brexit as a sort of inherited trait, indeed part of my lineage. Instead of rolling my eyes at the news, I shall now revel in the daily displays of incompetence and willful disregard for reality. Until it’s too late, of course.
Matt Rees is the author of nine historical and crime novels, the latest of which is “China Strike.”