I’m afraid I’m not competent to make any judgment on the current shenanigans in the House of Commons, and among the Tory party, over Theresa May and her Brexit plans; let alone to predict the outcome. I doubt whether any sane person is. I rather liked this recent ‘Matt’ cartoon:
That says it all, really. What a fool of itself this once proud nation is currently making to the world! (On that subject, the LRB is planning a collection of short pieces on Continental press reactions to Brexit. Kajsa and I have done the one on Sweden. Watch this space for a preview.)
The special contributions that historians can make in these circumstances are of three kinds. They can examine and assess any historical arguments that are made on both (or any) sides of the case: Boris Johnson’s post-imperial posturings, for example, or nineteenth-century diplomatic precedents (‘splendid isolation’), or our heroic Second World War (‘we stood alone then’). These of course are mainly wrong or grossly misleading – the stuff of popular myth rather than of objective history. Secondly, the historian can look back over time for genuine precedents for the current situation. I have to say I’ve found no convincing parallel in ‘my’ special period for the goings-on in the Commons just now. The Boer War caused political divisions and rows around 1900, especially in the Liberal Party – these as it happens were what my PhD thesis and first book were about – but nothing quite like today’s. Apart from anything else, the Monty Python-esque characters of the leading Brexiteers mark them off sharply from the very serious actors on both sides in that earlier dispute over empire. Otherwise today’s events have no close precedents. Thirdly, historians may be able to provide a broader context for today’s goings-on, than the bubble of most contemporary political commentary generally provides. ‘Context’ after all is what they are thoroughly used to dealing with in their historical researches.
I tried to do that last thing in my initial reactions to the Brexit referendum, just before it had happened: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/, and https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/20/this-dreadful-referendum/; at least to supply the immediate social and political context for the vote, which I have always maintained was never essentially about the EU, but rather a way for people to express their frustrations about other things – austerity, the government, Old Etonians, the deficiencies of Britain’s political system, ‘black’ foreigners – on the first occasion they were allowed to do this directly and effectively. That has been broadly accepted by other commentators since. (They won’t have got it from me.) The tiny and usually privileged minority of anti-European fanatics then cleverly used this to fake a populist appeal that would help them ultimately to achieve their very reactionary right-wing and neo-liberal agenda, away from the socially-concerned (if not exactly ‘socialist’) pressures they saw as coming from the EU. And the wider historical context of this, of course, is the accelerating progress of global capitalism, towards its (and perhaps the world’s) ultimate self-destruction, as good old Karl predicted (vaguely) all those years ago.
To return to today’s dramas: personally I’d like Brexit to be scrapped, probably after a referendum, and Britain to return to the EU with a Labour government which would then strive with Continental Leftists (who are on the rise, almost as much as the Nationalists and neo-Fascists are, and might draw support away from the latter), to make the European Union as socialist, or socialistic, or at least as social-democratic, as it promised to be at the beginning, before the global capitalists started nibbling at it too. The trouble with this is that the Right has so stirred up the Brexiteers – or a vocal and violent section of them – that ‘civil war’, no less, is being predicted and even encouraged if the latter are ‘betrayed’ in that way. That’s put the wind up Labour in particular, and probably explains what is widely presented as the ‘prevarication’ on Jeremy Corbyn’s part. Actually his policy is quite rational and consistent: wait for May’s plan to fail, force a general election, then (probably) have a second referendum which may show that the populace has changed its mind; then withdraw Article 50, go back in, and start reforming the EU from the inside. Short of that, the fairest solution, surely, would be a ‘soft’ Brexit – perhaps the Norway model – which would represent a fair reflexion of the country’s roughly 50:50 vote in 2016. But the Brexit fanatics and their millionaire tax-dodging expatriate allies in the popular press probably won’t stand for that. The EU is shortly to bring into effect measures to outlaw international tax avoidance, after all. Rich turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, even if lumpen ones can be persuaded to.