“In Wall Street, as elsewhere in 1929, few people wanted a bad depression. In Wall Street, as elsewhere, there is deep faith in the power of incantation. When the market fell, many Wall Street citizens immediately sensed the real danger … This had to be prevented. Preventive incantation required that as many important people as possible repeat as firmly as they could that it wouldn’t happen … As an instrument of economic policy, incantation does not permit of minor doubts or scruples”.
Thus the description of the prelude to the greatest economic disaster to strike not only the United States, but arguably most of the Western world, as taken from J K Galbraith’s seminal book The Great Crash 1929. The belief in talking up the economy’s prospects, and dismissing those of inconvenient view, is now manifesting itself in Britain.
The latest manifestation of Brexit-era preventive incantation has come in the wake of yesterday’s news that Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers, was to leave his post. Rogers was not a participant in the preventive incantation: his warnings were insufficiently upbeat, his attempts to inject reality into proceedings after the referendum inconvenient to those in the press and politics for whom Brexit could only be A Good Thing.
The Daily Mail, a full participant in the preventive incantation, was typical of the dismissive attitude to Rogers, publishing articles like that headlined “The arrogant merchant of gloom Mrs May will be glad to see the back of: ANDREW PIERCE on how the writing was on the wall for Sir Ivan Rogers for months before he quit as Our Man in Brussels … Sir Ivan Rogers was principal private secretary to Eurosceptic Ken Clarke … He often threw tantrums and Theresa May will not miss him as Brexit approaches”.
Those who have first-hand knowledge of Daily Mail editorial meetings may allow themselves a wry smile at the talk of the paper’s targets “throwing tantrums”, a claim for which Pierce advances no named source. Daily Mail Comment, though, backs up Pierce with a thundering denunciation of Rogers for his refusal to participate in the preventive incantation. Legendarily foul mouthed editor Paul Dacre is clearly in his element today.
“The resignation of Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, can be summed up in two words: good riddance … Every inch the Foreign Office mandarin and Brussels insider, Sir Ivan viewed the Brexit vote as a disaster and Brexiteers with barely disguised contempt” is followed by talk of how “a man with such defeatist views [can] be the [the] right person to represent this country in the negotiations ahead”.
Thus Dacre confirms that Rogers’ most significant transgression has been his refusal to participate in the preventive incantation. Further confirmation comes as the editorial declares that Rogers and his supporting team need “to be replaced by diplomats who believe - as this newspaper wholeheartedly does - in the exciting opportunities of Brexit”. Their abilities should be secondary to their participation in the preventive incantation.
The problem with this approach is glaringly obvious to those not participating. Negotiating with 27 other EU member states, and then with more than 160 other countries at the World Trade Organisation, will not be significantly influenced by preventive incantation. The exhilaration of patriotic fervour and banishment of inconvenient news will not serve to secure the UK a better deal, and will not serve as a substitute for experience.
Moreover, the press and its soul mates on the right of the Tory Party have been dishonest in their characterisation of Rogers, as Bruno Waterfield, no unthinking Europhile, has pointed out, confirming this morning that not only was Rogers not “aghast at the referendum verdict” as the Mail claims - he thought that Cameron would lose his gamble - but also “He warned that a #brexit vote was 'perfectly imaginable' from end of 2012 until it happened & never displayed any 'remoaner' tendency at all”.
This realisation, plus a clear unwillingness to participate in the preventive incantation, has also spread to politics.co.uk where Ian Dunt has concluded “We have insufficient negotiating capacity, a British team which is not coordinating between Whitehall and Brussels - let alone Geneva where we will have to extract WTO schedules - insufficient understanding of the opposing negotiating team, no plan, and a political leadership which treats sober reflection and strategic caution as unpatriotic sacrilege”.
What Britain faces may be as severe as the events that hit Wall Street in late October 1929. It may not. But what links The Great Crash and Brexit is the unswerving belief of those in power, and those cheering them on, in preventive incantation, the sure and certain knowledge that whatever bad things may lurk out there, they aren’t going to happen. And that anyone saying otherwise is some kind of traitor to the cause.
We know what happened in 1929. We also know that preventive incantation was ineffective in combating the forces unleashed in The Great Crash and its aftermath. While we do not know what will happen in 2017, we might be best warned that the talking up of our prospects, and banishing experienced diplomats and negotiators, will not by themselves help our cause.
Preventive incantation is wonderful to behold. If only it actually worked. You have been warned.