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Brexit in the Context of British History

How should Brexit be seen against the broad backdrop of British history? Analogies multiply, with the crudest coming from prominent Brexiteer MP Mark Francois who denounced the head of Airbus for writing a letter stressing the negative economic impact for Britain of leaving the EU.

Francois claimed that this was yet one more example of teutonic arrogance, adding pugnaciously, “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.” With this, he tore up the letter in front of the television cameras.

The puerile bombast that accompanied this performance attracted great publicity, as no doubt Francois intended, and derisive commentary was abundant. But Francois has scarcely been alone in making ludicrously exaggerated analogies between Britain leaving the EU and other great crises in British history.

Jacob Rees-Mogg made a classier but equally absurd comparison between Theresa May’s Brexit deal and the Treaty of Le Goulet agreed between King John and Philip II of France in 1200 at time when John was vainly trying to hold on to his lands across the Channel.

Such xenophobic or far-fetched analogies tend to bring into disrepute anybody else trying to see Brexit in the context of British history. Yet there are comparisons to be made with our recent and distant past which illuminate the political terrain in which the battle over relations between Britain and the EU is being fought.

The trouble is, knowledge of events only recently past is depressingly scanty. People may very reasonably say that they have never heard of the Treaty of Le Goulet and are dubious about its relevance. Much more dangerous is the fact that so many Conservative MPs, going by what they say, have little idea what was in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 or why it ended a savage guerrilla war in which some 3,000 people were killed.

The conflict known as the Troubles was only the latest episode in the 400-year-old confrontation between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ulster. Bringing it to an end was the greatest achievement of Tony Blair’s years in office. Yet today Theresa May is cavalierly putting this hard-won peace in jeopardy because she needs the votes of the DUP, seen by Catholics as a sectarian Protestant party, to maintain her parliamentary majority.

The British government has thoughtlessly abandoned the neutrality between nationalists and unionists which was declared by John Major’s government in 1993 and was a necessary precondition for peace talks.

Watching MPs being questioned about the backstop, it soon becomes clear that few of them have much idea of its significance.

The backstop is treated as if it was solely about border checks, or the absence of them, and about the stance of the EU, Irish and British governments on the issue. Conservative MPs and ministers state defiantly that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from the rest of the UK, as if the Good Friday Agreement and everything else to do with the country since 1920 has not treated it as a different political entity.

We have been here before. The crisis in British history which perhaps has the most in common with the turmoil over Brexit is that over the home rule, which convulsed British politics repeatedly between 1880 and 1922. The Conservative Party played the “Orange Card” successfully in order to win elections and thereby ensured that, when the Irish gained effective independence, it was through violence.

The English have the reputation abroad of being obsessed with their own history, but I doubt if this is really the case. Put another way, they consider history as a determining force to be something that happens to other people. The explanation for this is that the history of the British state over the last four centuries has been one of largely undiluted success, in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe, which looks back at a history of revolutions, wars and occupations.

The Suez crisis in 1956 is often cited as having similarities with Brexit, but it was a setback far more limited in scope than its subsequent reputation. The British and French miscalculated the strength of Egyptian nationalism and of US objections to their venture, but they suffered no military defeat and lost little they had not lost before. The British drew the lesson that they must become even closer allies of the US and the French, and that they needed to enhance their strength through deepening their engagement with Germany and the EEC.

The idea that the British have been blinded to their real interests by nostalgia for lost empire is a myth. If it had been true, then they would not have retreated from empire so easily (not so easy, of course, for people in India, Kenya, Cyprus and Malaya). Contrast this with France,which battled to keep Indo-China and then Algeria, only to suffer defeat and humiliation.

The British legacy from the 19th and 20th centuries is less a crippling desire to revisit imperial glories than an overwhelming sense of self-confidence which has only recently transformed into mindless hubris. The political class lost the ability to calculate the political odds for and against its projects. One could see this in the failures in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. One can see this again in the bafflement of the Theresa May government, the Brexiteers, and much of the public, as they struggle to understand why they failed to get their way in negotiations in Brussels, obvious though it was from the beginning that the 27 remaining members of the EU held the trump cards.

Stability within the UK and the skilful creation of alliances abroad were the key to past British successes while the Royal Navy prevented temporary reverses turning into permanent defeats. British power sprang from victory over France – as Britain’s historic European rival – in the Napoleonic wars and against Germany in the First and Second World Wars.

There has not really been a peacetime British crisis that matches up to Brexit since the 17th century and those most often mentioned, such the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the Great Reform Bill of 1832, do not measure up. The English Civil War between 1642 and 1651 had complex ingredients that are not yet replicated by Brexit (despite claims by those who are privately persuaded their cause would benefit from saying that we are all on the road to armageddon).

They may be right in the long term but one should not prematurely adopt the apocalyptic tone of many of the journalists and politicians gathered on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament. Brexit remains the strangest of crises because, as many have pointed out, the whole country is being invited to board the Brexit train without knowing its destination. That may be in some far distant land or, perhaps more likely, could simply be on another platform in the same railway station.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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