Thursday, 21 March 2019

BREXIT AND HISTORIANS

What will historians be writing about our current political chaos in a hundred years’ time? Where might Brexit feature in a list of the worst years in British history? These are questions historians should be very wary about trying to answer. Our job concerns the past. We are not social commentators or soothsayers. Or are we? Surely, if the past has nothing to say to the present, there is no point in recording it. Historians become redundant. With all this in mind it is with a fitting humility that I make the following comments.

 Back in 2008 I suggested that the worst anni horribili were those in which ‘dislocated societies’ were ‘cut off from their past and fearful of their future’. That certainly applied to three out of my top five – 1536 (when the nation was riven by religious and political conflict), 1812 (when, according to E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, ‘insurrectionary fury has rarely been more widespread in English history‘), and 1937, a year of hunger marches, Fascist and Communist agitators using popular prejudice for their own ends and millions demonstrating their lack of trust in politicians by refusing to vote in the general election. I see no reason to renege on that analysis.

 Wars, plagues, famine, and other ‘external’ calamities do have some redeeming qualities. They produce remarkable acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. They reinforce national solidarity. They inspire people to roll up their sleeves and tackle with shared hope the work of recovery. But when a population is riven by division; when anger and hatred stalk the land; when civilised discourse becomes impossible; when confidence in the nation’s leaders has broken down; where can people look for hope of a better future? The legacy of 1536 was a century or more of politico-religious upheaval and the execution of a king. The fallout from 1812 included the Peterloo Massacre (1819) and the socio-economic deprivation about which Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew were still writing a generation later. And 1937? Well, it took a World War and a near-invasion to shake Britain out of its internal woes and direct its energies towards building a united future.

 How far should we go in regarding such warnings as portents to be applied to our current situation? We are too close to it to know. Crystal balls are not part of the historian’s standard equipment and, therefore, I refrain from making predictions. This alone can I say, based on my study of past crises: specific issues (eg. Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Luddite Riots, the Jarrow Crusade) were only catalysts. They ignited already existing flammable social materials. Whether, when, if and how Britain leaves the EU has become an irrelevance. The damage is done. The argument has sparked a conflagration that will be with us for years. That is what historians will be writing about a century hence.

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