A lesson for the powerful: Folly, and its onward march

The histories of governments are in the main chronicles of recklessness and stupidity, redeemed every now and again by moments of genius and sheer good fortune.

A lesson for the powerful: Folly, and its onward march

The histories of governments are in the main chronicles of recklessness and stupidity, redeemed every now and again by moments of genius and sheer good fortune.

The American writer Barbara Tuchman provides vivid examples in her 1984 history, The March of Folly.

They included the Vietnam policy of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, and two acts of idiocy that were manifestly world-changing: The response of the 16th century Catholic Church to the discontents that would lead to the Protestant Reformation, and England’s government of its American colonies.

Common to all of these failures is a government or powerful authority determined to pursue courses of action contrary to its own interests.

Yet another example, also from England’s history, is the refusal of King Charles I to listen to the concerns of that country’s rising middle class and to reconsider his belief in the divine right of monarchs, the consequence being the establishment, albeit briefly yet 140 years ahead of the French revolution, of an English republic.

A revised edition of Ms Tuchman’s tale could well include Ryle Dwyer’s engaging account, published here on Saturday and continuing today, of the 1918 Conscription Crisis which, the historian explains, was a factor of even greater significance than the Easter Rising for the direction of Ireland’s history and the goal of independence.

While many Irishmen — an estimated 140,000 — volunteered to fight for Britain in 1914, the attempt by David Lloyd George to impose conscription on Ireland during what was to be the final year of the First World War created a galvanising backlash led by the clergy, the ultimate beneficiary of which was Sinn Féin.

Central to follies of this kind is the tendency out of arrogance and ignorance of those in power, be they elected or appointed, to stop listening carefully to the annoying and inconvenient voices of those they govern.

Are we seeing this now? Of course we are. US president Donald Trump would in all probability not be the 45th president of the US if the elite cabal that runs and funds the Democratic Party had cottoned on to just how unpopular, how loathed, Hillary Clinton was in the country’s heartlands. The refusal of Spain’s central government to negotiate with the Catalans is likely to reawaken separatist sentiment in other parts of the country.

Closer to home, former British prime minister David Cameron’s attempt in response to a major shift in the public opinion to get quite modest changes in the terms of its EU membership was rejected by Brussels, and Berlin; and now we are dealing with the mess that could have been prevented: The exit from the EU, unthinkable even five years ago, of one of its largest economies and one of its only two significant military powers.

That’s one problem for the EU 27; another is the alarming growth in popularity across continental Europe of profoundly nasty right-wing parties, the consequence not only of uncontrolled immigration but also of the seemingly deaf ear EU leaders turn to those who have yet to enjoy the fruits of ever closer union.

We must, then, hope for flashes of genius and sheer good fortune.

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