The Bear’s Lair: An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Failure

Theresa May’s negotiations for Britain’s exit from the European Union are not going well. Time and again, she has been forced to back down, notably over an outrageous EU demand for 40 billion pounds of exit money. Since that demand, negotiations have grown no easier, as the EU has attempted to impose further outrageous conditions, such as a veto over Britain’s trade treaties. There is a historical precedent for this: the late Saxon King Ethelred’s feeble and unsuccessful attempts to buy off Danish invaders with large gifts. Ms. May, starting merely as “Appeaser Teresa,” has become Ethel the Unready.

First, a little Anglo-Saxon history, for our American readers and those who slept through the late tenth century. Most of the tenth century had been a period of prosperity and contentment in England, as a series of strong Saxon Kings of the Wessex dynasty discouraged Danish invasions, producing peace and a rapid advance in civilization and learning. Then a boy-King Edward succeeded, only to be murdered in 979 by supporters of his younger brother Ethelred, known to history as “the Unready” (which in Saxon meant “ill-advised”).

Ethelred was an unpleasant individual, unscrupulous and without competence or judgement. The first dozen years of his reign were tranquil, then in 991 a Danish invasion defeated Ethelred’s army at the Battle of Maldon. The remaining 25 years of his reign were occupied by a miserable series of Danish invasions, which Ethelred attempted to buy off with progressively larger cash gifts – Danegeld. Needless to say, with Ethelred’s Treasury empty, his subjects rebellious and his military abilities insignificant, the gifts to Danes only brought further Danish invasions, a year or two later. The strength of the Saxon kingdom is attested by Ethelred’s rule lasting against this onslaught until 1016, when he was succeeded after a short interval by the Danish King Cnut.

Ethelred’s strategy against the Danes has been much mocked since his time. It had a certain logic: once Maldon had been lost, rallying the Saxon troops for all-out battle against the Danes appeared a hopeless endeavor. Much better to buy off the Danes, avoiding the short-term costs of military action. The mistake was to repeat the attempted bribe time after time with the bribes getting larger, so that the Danes knew that the easiest way to raise cash was to stage a raid on England. With the Danes raiding all over Northern Europe, a strategy of prickly and determined opposition, making raids on England unattractive compared to their other looting and rapine options, would have been greatly superior.

To return to the current century, Britain’s Brexit negotiating strategy has been uncomfortably reminiscent of Ethelred’s. It began with the EU demanding a gigantic bribe, making threatening noises while doing so more or less in the manner of Sweyn Forkbeard. The non-Ethelred strategy in face of this would have been to refuse to discuss any cash payments until the other terms of British exit had been sorted out. Instead, an utterly ludicrous figure was agreed, without any EU concessions in return. It is not true that such feeble negotiating has never been seen since Ethelred’s time; the negotiators who gave away Britain’s fishing rights while begging to be allowed into the EU were equally inept. Still, the transaction has an altogether Ethelredian air to it.

Further insults have now been rained down on Britain’s head by the rampant Viking savages of the EU. We have been told that Britain will not be allowed to negotiate trade treaties without EU permission, a disgraceful violation of the rights of every independent state. We are also now being told that during the pointless “transition period” that the feeble May has called for, Britain will continue to obey every jot and tittle of EU law, without having any say whatever in their foolishness. Britain is also being given the poisoned option of remaining within the “Single Market” which would allow it no freedom whatever to negotiate trade treaties that are more suited to its globally-oriented economy, while doubtless further billions are gouged out of it for EU slush funds and the deadbeats of the Mediterranean.

No doubt Ethelred had additional difficulties of which the chronicles do not tell us, Danish-bribed quislings who spied on his military preparations or actively schemed to replace the Wessex Dynasty with Danish kings. Certainly May suffers from these people, a vast array of irreconcilable Remainers, from Tony Blair upwards, who prepare spurious economic forecasts of the doom from Brexit, write innumerable editorials denouncing every aspect of it, leak confidential documents to our EU enemies, and will doubtless desert from the noble Anglo-Saxon shield-walls, leaving holes and vulnerabilities, should matters ever come to that. Strong leadership, such as that of Athelstan and Margaret Thatcher, deals firmly with these vermin; weak leadership such as that of Ethelred and May allows them to multiply.

The long-term outlook for Ethelred’s people was not good. While Cnut, his immediate successor, was a benign ruler, he was later succeeded by a much more ruthless Norman invader William I, who followed a policy much like Pol Pot in Cambodia, stamping out every aspect of Anglo-Saxon civilization, so that eventually even the Chronicle went silent.

Similarly, defeat by the EU would undoubtedly result in the end of British civilization and culture – we will not be given another opportunity to escape. The incoming German coalition has made it very clear that its ambition is to produce a federal Europe, with no significant decision-making remaining at the national level, and the EU bureaucracy having control over all aspects of their people’s thought and speech that would have been unthinkable before modern communications technology. The various “opt-outs” that Britain negotiated with so much difficulty as it felt itself being drawn tighter into the snare will no longer be permitted. Even within Britain, the worst sort of politicians, those devoted to an EU super-state, will be allowed to run riot over the freedoms of their beleaguered people. Maybe Britons’ fate will be better than that of Anglo-Saxon theigns subjected to the arbitrary whim of a rapacious and cruel Norman lord, but not by much.

The solution to the problem is quite simple, but Ethel the Unready is showing an alarming unwillingness to take it. When she opened negotiations, she said that no Brexit deal would be better than a bad Brexit deal. It is now blindingly obvious that the only negotiated Brexit deal available is truly intolerable, full of invented EU prohibitions that will prevent British freedom both nationally and individually. That being so, Ethel or her successor must have the courage to walk away on March 30, 2019, with no EU deal beyond the barest WTO trading rules.

The shock of this to the British economy will be substantial, but it will be short-term, and Britain can begin negotiating the exceptionally favorable trading agreements that are undoubtedly on offer, starting with Donald Trump’s United States. It would have been much better to have been negotiating such deals for the past year, since Article 50 notice was given, but for that, as for much else, Ethel was Unready. At least Britain will save most if not all of the billions of euros demanded by the rapacious EU bloodsuckers as an exit fee – if they continue to demand such payments, Britain should see them in court, a British court.

It is not clear what can be done to avoid Britain’s likely slide into slavery. If May can be given some backbone, perhaps by a good haunting by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, that might help reach a solution. Replacing May, on the other hand, may very well not be enough. The obvious alternatives, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, are both tainted by their pathetic performance during the selection process that produced May. In any case, there is almost certainly no majority in the House of Commons for a Brexit deal that actually worked – itself a very good reason for just allowing the Article 50 notice to run its course and presenting the House of Commons with a fait accompli of a “no deal” Brexit.

To manage such a process, Britain needs a leader who is capable, fanatically committed to Brexit, and sufficiently tough-minded to cope with the rough period immediately after March 2019, probably without a Commons majority to manage the process. Jacob Rees-Mogg has some of the necessary characteristics, Nigel Farage has others; perhaps the only viable solution, giving Britain the leadership quality of Churchill, Liverpool and Pitt, is a coalition between the two of them.

“Resolution should be the tougher, keener the heart, the mind should be greater when our power diminishes,” declaimed the Saxon general Bryhtwold in the epic poem “The Battle of Maldon.” There is no question that Ethel the Unready has a difficult task without a reliable Witan majority. Still, she must either sharpen up or go; the future of Britain is too important to be subjected to such feeble, dithering ineptitude.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)