I’m trying to think of a positive side to Brexit, to put against all the negatives that are continuously bugging me, and even keeping me awake at night. It doesn’t help when I read – though I know I shouldn’t – all that anger gushing from Leavers on the internet: simple insults, no facts, and usually ungrammatical. ‘The people have spoken.’ ‘You lost – get over it!’ ‘A second referendum would be flouting the people’s will.’ (Eh?) ‘What do you not understand about democracy?’ ‘If Brexit is reversed there’ll be violence in the streets, and I’m willing to join in.’ ‘Traitors.’ ‘F*cking elitists.’ (These all from recent posts, but with the spellings corrected.) I don’t think I ever remember Britain – or is it only her internet trolls? – being so savagely divided. Whatever the outcome of this Brexit farce, I can’t see us recovering from this. Farage, Johnson and Co. have split the country wide open; maybe even destroyed it. And if they win, Britain will probably decline economically, or else become part of a much less benevolent US economic empire (American product standards, and all that); and will certainly never recover any of the (modest) political and moral respect she used to have in the world.
On the positive side, there is still a possibility that the original decision could be reversed, though not without leaving deep wounds in the body politic. There will be a pro-EU demonstration in London this Saturday, which could attract thousands. (Let’s see. I can’t be there.) If there were a second referendum, and re-joining the EU were one of the options, simple demographic trends should ensure a pro-Remain vote this time, with many elderly voters (my generation) dying, and younger pro-Europeans reaching voting age. They must resent their whole futures being put in jeopardy by people who have almost no future at all. The latest polling figures give Remainers a narrow majority already, with the only problem being the number of people who are heartily fed up with the whole thing, and simply want shot of it. Together with the right-wing tabloids screaming against the very idea of a re-run on pseudo-democratic grounds, that might undermine such a vote. Supposing even fewer than the original 72% voted? Wouldn’t that open up the question again? I imagine that’s why Labour are prevaricating on the issue.
If the Brexiteers do eventually win through, there won’t be much for us Leftish Remainers to salvage from the wreck. It has been an educational experience, with people getting to know far more about the European Union than they did when they voted to leave. (I include myself in this.) Two of the constituent kingdoms of the UK voted to Remain; Brexit might energise them to seek their own independence, or union with the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland’s case. That would be a shame for their English and Welsh friends, but might be a boon for Scotland, whose political instincts have always been leftwards of ours. I suppose it’s possible that an isolated Britain or England, cast-off into the raging Atlantic, might come to its senses and adopt a kind of ‘socialism in one country’ agenda that some Labour Brexiteers believed the EU had precluded before. But that, of course, would go right against the wishes – and persuasive power – of the capitalists who see the new off-shore Britain mainly as a low-tax haven for themselves. I can’t think of much else on the plus side. Investment will dry up; much-needed immigrant workers too; English Tories will capitalise on the new situation; the rest of us will become poorer; xenophobia and racism will increase – it will still be ‘Europe’s fault’; those of us who are comfortable with multiple national identities – the people Theresa May scorned as ‘citizens of nowhere’ – will have no natural home; and, writing personally, I’ll find my domestic life – with a Swedish sambo – rather more difficult than now.
Perhaps this is what is needed, however, in order to get the British thinking seriously about who they really are. Since the fall of the Empire, they’ve never been quite sure about this. Boris Johnson’s blatant desire to revive the Empire – or at least the Commonwealth – in some form or another is clearly illusory. When that project crashes in flames we’ll need to re-consider our position in the world more realistically; hopefully – speaking for myself – not as the outpost of the American empire that many early British imperialists envisaged. All this is up for grabs.
Which is exciting, and may well be painful; but will have the advantage, for me, of giving me, at last, a date for the end of the British Empire, and hence a definite conclusion to the sixth edition of my The Lion’s Share, A History of British Imperialism; which is presently in the hands of a young, talented American scholar to revise and complete. I must send him some hints.
Congratulations, Bernard, on the enduring appeal of ‘The Lion’s Share, A History of British Imperialism’.
Your own books seem to me to be outstanding examples of how the standard of history writing has improved dramatically since I first attended university in the late 1960s.
Secondly, I am surprised by the limited space that is often accorded to Britain’s quasi-imperial role in Palestine in the time of the mandate. The world-historical impact of the mandate era is immense, yet, in a text such as ‘The Oxford Companion to British History’, the entry under Palestine rates little more than sixteen lines. Yet Lord Balfour himself receives one and a half columns in the same volume.
In your own ‘Britannia’s Burden’, which I was reading yesterday, Palestine is very given limited attention, and the same is true of ‘The Lion’s Share’.
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Points taken! I’ll take them on board for the next edn.
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Oh, thank you for replying, Bernard; however, I had hoped – perhaps unreasonably as it turns out – for an explanation of why Britain’s dealings with Palestine have been downplayed by British historians. Or perhaps you might think my conjecture about this matter is off the mark. I understand that this could well be a topic that no longer interests you.
As we approach Remembrance Day, aren’t there parallels between the way in which voters were misled in the Referendum with false facts and propaganda as a cover for the deluded romantic patriotism of Gove, Johnson et al, with the propaganda that led to so many working class men joining up in 1914 to defeat Germany (again seen by many Brexiteers as the enemy) and from the same kind of areas …North East etc which will be worse affected by Brexit.
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Yes, good point. Brexit would be ‘easy’; the War would be ‘over by Christmas’. These were obviously important persuasive factors in both cases. The only question is, whether they constituted deliberate deception, or whether the pro-war and pro-Brexit politicians genuinely believed them.