Wrong turn — or an inevitable process?

How will posterity view Brexit? Historians may now ignore its causes, but their successors may see it as just another response to global events


“We must recapture that spirit of common purpose.” Theresa May’s call to action at the Conservative Party Conference was both part of a powerful reiteration of her speech when she entered Number 10 in 2016, and yet also a reminder of the contingent. In leading, politicians can call on the people, but it is the latter who deliver — or not.

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Thus to consider the future of the United Kingdom is inherently a tentative process. That is not due to Brexit. It has simply been accentuated by the process, albeit greatly so. Far from Brexit, for example, causing the break-up of the UK, that was already in prospect with the rise of the SNP in Scotland and, earlier and very differently, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The challenging rise of left-wing elements committed to their vision of direct action was already apparent in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the potential combination of the Left with Russian meddling in British politics scarcely had to wait for Jeremy Corbyn: the Soviets armed the IRA and encouraged the National Union of Mineworkers. So also with economic and financial problems. These are not made less serious because they have happened before, but that is an important background when considering the present situation.

One approach is to look at politics as cyclical. This would see Margaret Thatcher overcoming a set of problems that now threaten to recur, although it is not clear whether they can be so successfully surmounted anew. Indeed, Theresa May provided a sense of this with her references to the two world wars, and to the unity seen then, a unity that she presented as challenged by the departure of Labour from the principles of its past.

An alternative is to note important continuities while also seeing the unpredictabilities of very different contexts. At the global level, that certainly seems pertinent. There were anxieties in the past about economic developments in East Asia, large-scale migration, and environmental change, but not on the scale of the present. Each of those affects the future character of the UK but with the course of development set from outside. It would be bizarre, with the world population heading for unprecedented numbers, to argue that this will not have an impact on Britain.

These and other points serve as reminders that there is much at stake other than Brexit, a point that many commentators seem to find difficult to credit. Indeed, there is an element of a search for “agency” in the focus on Brexit. Faced with a range of problems, it is comforting to believe that if only the outcome was Brexit, or if only Remain, then the situation would be much better and problems would recede. This approach is encouraged by the short-termism that characterises much of the debate, on both sides. It is understandable because projections, whether reliable or not, tend to be, or to appear, more reliable if focused on the short term, and also because most people live in the short term: they are concerned with the price of bread today, and not in two years’ time. The noise of imminence, the predictions for next year, drown out longer-term considerations, and help drive the politics of the present.

At the same time, this noise does not really address the counterfactuals — the “what ifs?”. The key one relates to what level best answers the need to address future problems in a way that enjoys democratic consent. The latter is the crucial element, not least because the unity for which Theresa May honourably and valiantly calls will be elusive. Such consent is a vital element because it is difficult to envisage the challenges of the future without the need to win support for difficult compromises. This is already apparent in such matters as housing, pensions and taxation, and will probably become more pressing. The opportunities to opt out of many hard choices by turning to the funds successively made available by North Sea oil, privatisation and quantitative easing have made the process of future consent more difficult.

Such consent at the national level will be very difficult, but current problems across the European Union suggest that it will be even harder at that level. Given the tendency in the EU towards convergence and a federalist centralism, then British opt-outs or divergences — whether in VAT exclusions, the percentage of those with private pensions, not being a member of the eurozone or following a particular line on immigration — may become more difficult. Yet, for many, these reflect and/or sustain particular characteristics of identity and nationhood that they do not wish to lose. Unsurprisingly, there is much here that is familiar, notably in terms of debates about identity.

Britain is a European country but that does not dictate any particular political arrangement. This also applies to the future. So many uncertainties exist: each adds speculation and hypotheses to current information. Uncertainties also serve to challenge theoretical frameworks and to pose question-marks to historic perspectives. These uncertainties relate both to Britain and to the continent, and it is never clear how to rank them and what causal links should be to the fore.

 To turn to Britain, it is unclear how far Brexit will undermine the Union and, more generally, reopen questions of Britishness, and, separately, how far it will liberalise the British economy. Such uncertainties have been pushed back as the very process of implementing Brexit has raised questions about not only what Brexit means but also whether it will occur at all.

As far as the continent is concerned, it is unclear whether President Macron will really be able to reverse the socialist tide that France has been riding since 1981 and that has pushed down its trend rate of growth. It is unclear whether the euro will continue to give Germany an unassailable economic advantage. In 2018, Hungary, Italy and Poland all displayed a willingness to oppose either the EU or its major constituent powers, or both, the new Italian government being vociferous in opposition to both France and Germany. It is unclear if Eurocrats reflect the views of the governments that appoint them, or whether they have seized power so that the EU is out of control.

Moreover, there are fundamental questions about the long-term stability and viability of the EU. A lack of linkage between populists, of Left and Right, and, on the other hand, the drivers of the European “project”, as well as the matter of unfunded liabilities and a dysfunctional fiscal system, create questions about the ability of the EU to solve its problems. This appears to be the case, whether or not Britain is a member. It is not clear whether it is in the EU’s interests to accommodate Britain or to be hostile, or which approach will prevail in the short, medium, or long term.

Changing global power politics are also significant, notably deep strains between the United States and Europe, including Britain. It is unclear what an American-lite European security order might look like for Britain and the continent. In theory, British security guarantees provide a form of continuing commitment to and leverage on the continent, but that appears of limited consequence for the European Commission, and it is unclear how Britain can take advantage of these guarantees.

Strategic issues in part reflect the role of geopolitics. As an island power, Britain, like Japan in relation to China, not only had physical separation but could also afford to be somewhat detached from the traditional geopolitical concerns that occupied the European land powers, notably France and Germany. Paranoid about German power, French foreign security policy found the EU a vehicle for a continued French role in the context of post-war imperial decline. For Britain, there is a different security rationale to those of France and Germany, and a different cost-benefit analysis for continued membership. And so also into the future.

Britain was semi-detached from the EU “project” prior to the 2016 referendum, which has largely changed the conditions of this semi-detachment. The challenge will be to use national structures effectively so as to maintain confidence in a democratic politics and culture. These structures also have to cope with rival nationhoods within the UK, a list that now includes (different) attempts to create Islamic identities. It is easy to understand why such complexities lead some European states to push their problems onto the level of the EU, a process seen most obviously with Belgium but also apparent until recently in Italy. However, that approach has become widely unacceptable. From that perspective, a British process of searching for national solutions and accountability appears plausible. It will probably be outside the EU, but if Brexit were to fail and Britain, instead, to remain within the EU, it is difficult to see how the hopes of European enthusiasts can be met by the likely trajectory of British separateness.

Ungovernability may be a condition of the atomistic nature of modern society. A Brexit Britain deals with an element of this problem by providing an opportunity to keep the show of government on the road. The viability, democratic, functional or both, of the alternative façade, that of the EU, is less obvious and that provides a way to consider the counterfactuals for Brexit.

How then will future historians assess the period inaugurated by the Brexit referendum? Many on the Remain side see Brexit as a disastrous wrong turn in the natural evolution of British history, but that reading does not allow for the repeated discontinuities in that history, notably over the last 80 years.

Instead, Brexit is likely to be seen as a particularly significant aspect of a marked process of change in Britain’s domestic and, more particularly, international position. The changes in the communist world in the 1980s were a particularly significant prelude, as large-scale migration from Eastern Europe, combined with the immigration policies of the Blair government, built up domestic anxieties about the consequences of an expanded EU. Moreover, China’s successful engagement with world trade challenged established manufacturing and commercial patterns. Brexit  may well be seen, therefore, as an aspect of the response to the end of a particular stage in communist history, which is probably not what supporters or opponents anticipated. Linked to this, Brexit may appear as an aspect of a more widespread would-be nationalism in the face of the weaknesses of supranational solutions, and notably of attempts at supranational governance.

These are international interpretations of Brexit, alongside others that can be offered. National ones also come to the fore, notably in terms of the failure of metropolitan interests and movements, whether it be the City or the self-styled progressive Left, to create a national constituency, or, indeed, to try to engage with the concerns of the bulk of the population. Indeed, but for a reluctance to opt for change and for “Project Fear”, a greater number might well have voted for Brexit. Historians may be unwilling to give due weight to this approach as most do not get out much,  preferring the company of those they identify with, which tends to mean cosmopolitan left-wingers. So, the question in part is whether a history that makes sense of the numbers who voted for Brexit can be written from within the Academy. It is likely that accusations of false consciousness will be bandied about to explain the vote. Fortunately, given the extraordinarily slanted nature of the historical profession, few outside its ranks pay it the attention it claims. There is an “impact agenda” in higher education, but reality does not match its pretensions.