Historians don’t usually like to guess the future. They know how unreliable that sort of thing has been in the past. Where’s the ‘thousand-year Reich’ today? Or, come to that, the thousand-year British Empire? (Yes, in the early 1900s some imperialists even predicted that.) Or Richard Cobden’s peaceful free-trade heaven? Or Francis Fukujama’s ‘end of history’? Or Marx’s socialist utopia? Or any of the dystopias that have been floated now and then? All have come to nothing. (So far!) Shorter-term predictions are equally foolish. At the end of 2016 I made a prediction of this kind on this blog: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/12/31/2017-prediction/; I don’t know why I’m drawing attention to it now – it only shows me up. And that was on the basis of all my knowledge of the past.
That can provide little guidance. As a historian I can’t even predict what’s going to happen next week in Parliament, when the great ‘Brexit’ vote takes place. A ‘hard’ Brexit, a ‘soft’ one, May’s plan, May’s plan defeated, Brexit postponed, Brexit itself defeated, May ousted, a new prime minister, a new government, political parties torn apart and regrouping, yellow-vest riots outside Parliament…. who knows? I made a guess a couple of weeks ago (https://bernardjporter.com/2018/12/30/corbyns-way/, towards the end); but that was more in hope than in expectation. The present crisis must be the least predictable one in British history. Anyone who thinks they can foresee even a few days ahead is either psychic or a fool.
As to the effects of Brexit itself – if it ever takes place – we’re almost as much in the dark. Surely it’s not going to produce a magnificent renaissance of British power and prosperity in the world, let alone the kind of ‘empire’ the Old Etonians obviously hanker after. For a start, Britain’s former supremacy was not all that supreme: see my British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t. Secondly, such as it was, it was established in entirely different conditions from today’s. Nor is Brexit likely to make Britain any more ‘independent’, essentially, than she is today: ‘dependence’ not requiring to be ‘formal’ in order to be just as chafing as it is supposed to be under Brussels, and with American ‘informal imperialism’ – a term coined by us imperial historians – making us even less independent than we are now. So I think I can predict that the most outrageously positive modern predictions for a Brexit Britain won’t come to pass. Instead, it will all probably turn out badly, with Britain becoming poorer, isolated, and for almost the first time disrespected in the wider world, with so many of the national qualities for which we used to be admired, or thought we were – tolerance and the rest – having in very recent years been thrown overboard to appease the quasi- and proto-fascists in our midst. In that case the present period of our national history is likely to be regarded by future historians as a foolish and embarrassing one; to be analysed in much the same way as previous disasters have been. Boris Johnson almost certainly won’t come out of it as the Churchill figure he aspires to be. Of course I could be wrong.
When our present-day crisis is examined by future historians, and also the crises going on in parallel in much of the rest of the Western world, they may be seen to fit into the broader trend that I see as furnishing a genuine clue to all our futures: which is the general long-term crisis of uncontrolled capitalism, which affects us all in different ways. But that’s the Marxist in me.
And even with this insight – if it is such – I can’t predict what will happen eventually. Will it be controlled and limited, perhaps by new forms of social democracy? Or provoke revolutions, of one kind or another – socialist, or neo-fascist, or religious, or something else? Or will the ‘natural’ and unstoppable development of the capitalist system result in the destruction of all of us, though wars, famines or – most likely – global warming through over-exploitation of resources? As a historian, and based on past trends, I think I can see the general direction in which things are moving; but not their end.