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Brexit, the Novel

If UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to worry about the value of the pound or the fragility of the British economy, he would need to be much more careful. But the British are resilient, the Bank of England will take the necessary actions, and the value of the pound does not matter much – all of which means that Johnson could win.

WASHINGTON, DC – The best way to think about the United Kingdom’s political predicament and presumed imminent exit from the European Union is to read the Slough House spy novel series by Mick Herron (the sixth installment, Joe Country, just appeared). Herron writes about the modern MI5 intelligence agency and the machinery of government in general – not directly about economic policy. But he perfectly captures how bureaucracies function, as well as what political “leadership” really means in a complex world where illusion and misdirection prevail in democratic systems.

The contrast with classic spy novels, such as the early work of John le Carré, is readily apparent and part of the fun for readers. During the Cold War, the so-called Moscow Rules guided how spies could survive in hostile environments: “watch your back” was the guiding idea. Today, according to Herron, a set of London Rules prevails, the most important of which is “cover your ass” and protect your career.

Britain has had many economic difficulties and some serious crises over the past century, and it is tempting sometimes to draw parallels – for example, to difficulties associated with the gold standard between the world wars or the Suez Crisis in 1956. But the international system is now quite different, Britain’s role in the global economy is much diminished, and the pound floats freely against major currencies.

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