Seafaring legend has it that in October 1707 a seasoned able seaman in Britain’s Royal Navy broke protocol to warn his aristocratic admiral, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, that his fleet was headed for rocks near the Isles of Scilly, in the western approaches to the English Channel. In the era before accurate calculation of longitude, such were the perils of inaccurate navigation. The story goes that the admiral ordered the insubordinate sailor to be hanged. What is known for sure is that four battleships foundered on those rocks and more than 1,500 men drowned, including the arrogant admiral himself.

In the era of Brexit, British civil servants are in the position of sailors dutifully manning their stations while their captains, with the disdainful certainty of the profoundly ignorant, steer the ship of state blindly into perilous waters. Nowhere is this more evident than in the foreign service: as the Conservative leadership makes England little again, it is Her Majesty’s ambassadors who feel the decline most keenly.

I was recently asked to address an American audience on the topic of British foreign policy. I declined. It would have turned into competitive commiseration: which Anglo-Saxon power is eviscerating its global standing more quickly? Which is worse: British senile dementia or American recklessness?

Rhyming with ‘musketeer’, the word ‘Brexiteer’ implies bravado and swagger, as if the proponents of Britain going it alone were romantic rule-breakers with a daring disregard for convention. I prefer ‘Brexidiot’ because they are profoundly stupid: so stupid that they don’t know the depths of their ignorance. The best arguments the Brexidiots can marshal are that Britain leaving the European Union might—just might—not go quite as badly as the experts foresaw, and that the country might, if it is lucky, end up looking like Singapore.

One of the overlooked aspects of Brexit is that it requires a professional civil service to implement a set of policies that every one of them knows to be comprehensively wrong. It is too much to ask them to implement the impossible with passion, commitment and creativity. It is particularly so as the intricacies of Brexit will mean that Britain’s civil servants can do little else for a decade. While the EU and other responsible members of the global community are grappling with global issues such as climate change, tax justice and employment in the robotic era, Britain will be uselessly chewing through an avalanche of the legal minutiae of the world’s most complex divorce proceedings, which in the best case scenario, will minimize the damage to the status quo. Britons are told that it is the most momentous political decision of a lifetime. Who wants the their lifetime’s career to be a pointless haggle over a divorce bill?

John Maynard Keynes was once confronted by a critic who admonished him for changing his mind. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind,’ responded Keynes, ‘What do you do, sir?’

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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