In the weeks leading up to the declaration of war in 1914, the British were supremely confident. “It will be over by Christmas” said the optimists; pessimists reckoned the war might last two whole years. Almost nobody predicted the trenches, the destruction of farms and fields, the loss of an entire generation of young men in the battles that eventually became known as World War I.
That profound misreading of events was, famously, the product of a particular moment. The early 20th century was a time of prosperity and incredible technological innovation. Trains, planes, telephones and telegraphs were linking a newly globalized world; peace was taken for granted. Britain, like much of the rest of Europe, had not really been at war for decades, and many had forgotten what it meant. Young men signed up to fight with enthusiasm, for the adventure, inspired to “do their bit” to “help king and country”.
Something of that mood is in the air once again. Once again we live in an era of peace, prosperity and technological innovation. Once again, we take them all for granted. Once again, some are enthusiastic for a new adventure — and in Britain, Theresa May’s Brexit gridlock might make it possible. The prime minister has not managed to secure a parliamentary majority for the withdrawal plan that she negotiated with the European Union. Instead, she has postponed the vote, and this week the government started planning for a “no deal” exit. If this comes to pass, hundreds of trade and other agreements between Britain and the continent will simply become invalid on March 29, the day the negotiating clock runs out. Unless the E.U. decides to offer extensions, customs checks and tariff barriers will automatically snap into place — and nobody really knows what that means.
There could be shortages of food and medicine; already, the British state is buying extra refrigeration units. Flights could be grounded. Contracts could be invalidated. Millions of British citizens living in Europe, and millions of E.U. citizens living in Britain, will be in legal limbo. Britain’s relationships with its most important allies and economic partners could be permanently affected by a period of chaos, for many decades into the future.
But the real point is that nobody knows what will follow, because no nation in modern times has ever deliberately cut itself off from all of its most important trading partners, and ended all of its more important cultural and political relationships, overnight. My guess is that the impact will be drawn out, so that it will be many years before the damage is clear; others think it will be swift, causing immediate hardship. But mostly it is unknown — which makes it the perfect focus for hopeful fantasies.
Given the British reputation for caution and conservatism, it’s quite astonishing how many now welcome the prospect of economic crisis with enthusiasm. A sudden drop in economic activity will be good for the nation’s soul, some believe; everyone will buck up, tighten their belts and work harder. “The British are among the worst idlers in the world”, a group of pro-Brexit MPs wrote recently. What is needed, they seem to think, is a shock, a period of hardship, a challenge. This will return a slothful, decadent Britain to its essence, reveal the country’s plucky character. Boris Johnson has also called for a revival of “the dynamism of those bearded Victorians”, a return to the era of colonial glory.
On the other side of the political spectrum, there is a different sort of fantasy. The opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, hails from a Marxist tradition that welcomes catastrophe because it is, as the journalist Nick Cohen wrote recently, “the midwife of socialist revolution”. A subset of the British far left also hopes that the crisis will be long and harsh enough to jolt the country out of its economic system. They want an economic collapse that will discredit the capitalist system so thoroughly that the nation will be receptive to something different.
Still others hope for a deep crisis, but with a different outcome: That chaos that will lead to a bonfire of regulations, an abandonment of the welfare state, new opportunities for hedge funds and investors. Britain will become Europe’s offshore tax haven, they argue: An oligarch-friendly country where no rules apply. Those who don’t like it will simply have to adjust, to learn to live with less.
These are not fringe views, and they are not considered crazy. All of these fantasies are expressed by establishment figures: the former foreign secretary, the leader of the opposition, wealthy financiers. They are also firmly held views, and counterarguments do not sway them. When the Bank of England or the Chancellor of the Exchequer issues warnings about a downside to a no-deal Brexit, they deride this language as “Project Fear”, a form of propaganda. As in 1914, the enthusiasm for the challenge — this time for a purifying, edifying economic crisis rather than a war — far outweighs the dull objections of automobile manufacturers who need just-in-time delivery of car parts from France. Indeed, if the challenge never comes, they will feel cheated. Already, some are talking of “violence in the streets” if Brexit is halted or delayed.
And here’s the tragedy: I am now convinced that only a real crisis can cure this 21st-century fantasy of crisis. If Britain really does crash out of the European Union, and really does experience a catastrophe — if businesses really suffer, and ordinary people lose their jobs — only that might make these establishment revolutionaries feel some nostalgia for the prosperity they once knew. But by then, of course, it will be too late.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post's editorial board