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“We must recapture that spirit of common purpose.” Theresa May’s call to action at the Conservative Party Conference was both part of a powerful reiteration of her speech when she entered Number 10 in 2016, and yet also a reminder of the contingent. In leading, politicians can call on the people, but it is the latter who deliver — or not.

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Thus to consider the future of the United Kingdom is inherently a tentative process. That is not due to Brexit. It has simply been accentuated by the process, albeit greatly so. Far from Brexit, for example, causing the break-up of the UK, that was already in prospect with the rise of the SNP in Scotland and, earlier and very differently, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The challenging rise of left-wing elements committed to their vision of direct action was already apparent in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the potential combination of the Left with Russian meddling in British politics scarcely had to wait for Jeremy Corbyn: the Soviets armed the IRA and encouraged the National Union of Mineworkers. So also with economic and financial problems. These are not made less serious because they have happened before, but that is an important background when considering the present situation.

One approach is to look at politics as cyclical. This would see Margaret Thatcher overcoming a set of problems that now threaten to recur, although it is not clear whether they can be so successfully surmounted anew. Indeed, Theresa May provided a sense of this with her references to the two world wars, and to the unity seen then, a unity that she presented as challenged by the departure of Labour from the principles of its past.

An alternative is to note important continuities while also seeing the unpredictabilities of very different contexts. At the global level, that certainly seems pertinent. There were anxieties in the past about economic developments in East Asia, large-scale migration, and environmental change, but not on the scale of the present. Each of those affects the future character of the UK but with the course of development set from outside. It would be bizarre, with the world population heading for unprecedented numbers, to argue that this will not have an impact on Britain.

These and other points serve as reminders that there is much at stake other than Brexit, a point that many commentators seem to find difficult to credit. Indeed, there is an element of a search for “agency” in the focus on Brexit. Faced with a range of problems, it is comforting to believe that if only the outcome was Brexit, or if only Remain, then the situation would be much better and problems would recede. This approach is encouraged by the short-termism that characterises much of the debate, on both sides. It is understandable because projections, whether reliable or not, tend to be, or to appear, more reliable if focused on the short term, and also because most people live in the short term: they are concerned with the price of bread today, and not in two years’ time. The noise of imminence, the predictions for next year, drown out longer-term considerations, and help drive the politics of the present.
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Lawrence James
November 30th, 2018
10:11 AM
[ to Michael Layden ] First, it is mistaken to compare the referendum ( a contrivance favoured by Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler ) with a general election. The former has taken a decision that will affect future generations whilst the latter decides which party will govern the country for the next five years. So it is that 17 out of 46.8 million voters decided what would befall Britain for decades.Many will not live to see the consequences of their choices and by no stretch of the imagination did the result indicate the 'national will'. As to the historians, as I remember, they were numbered in the hundreds. You are right to say that some nation states have flourished and continued to do so and many are willing to dilute their sovereignty through alliances and commercial treaties. It was the decision made by the German General Staff to invade Belgium which compelled Britain to declare war in 1914. Enlightened and humane 'experts'can govern as fairly and efficiently as elected governments: ask the people of Zimbabwe, Burma, Somaliland and the Sudan.

Michael Layden
November 26th, 2018
11:11 AM
Lawrence James, You consider that taking the outcome of the referendum as the voice of the nation (an odd choice of words, considering your views on "nation state democracy") is a "flimsy assumption". Yet UK governments are all elected on the majority of votes, not of those entitled to vote, but those voting. Are they all then illegitimate? You clearly consider that in virtue of your deep study of history you have a better sense of the "authentic voice of the nation". And that those whose view differs from your own must perforce be in the grip of "visceral passions". Honestly, your opinionated arrogance, so naively and disingenuously displayed, is quite breathtaking. And how splendidly cack-handed to suggest that the states formed from the implosion of Austria-Hungary were desolated, only to regain "happiness" when taken under the wing of a subsequent supranational entity. A rosy view indeed of what's happening on the eastern fringes of the EU. "A substantial body of historians wrote to the Guardian"in favour of your view of things. Who'd a thunk? Don't you think it might be a "flimsy assumption" that a group of historians writing to the Guardian represent an expert consensus? The Guardian - known in my day as the Grauniad - is not known for its breadth of view. How many of them were there? What proportion of historians at large do they represent? You don't believe that the "nation-state democracy" is the only basis for human happiness. Fair enough. But I don't think anyone with half a brain ever thought it was. Happiness or otherwise is an individual condition. But as a model for organising collective human affairs in a manageable and generally positive way - giving people in a fairly local context a say in how they want things arranged, and giving those groups of people a structure in which to arrange their relations with other groups - it's not doing too badly. There are many very successful nation states deeply engaged in positive relations with their peers, and still many shambolic attempts at the same, largely riven by their internal contradictions. Such is humanity. Your preferred alternative seems to me to be a new imperialism run by "experts" rather than dynasties. A Brave New World.

Lawrence James
November 23rd, 2018
1:11 PM
Lucky for you that you did not specify your stake, for there are Brexiteers in my family and among my circle of friends. As for experts, during the Referendum campaign,a substantial body of historians wrote to the Guardian in favour of remain.I do not believe that the 'nation state democracy' is the only basis for human happiness or human progress. Consider the 'states' formed after the implosion of the Habsburg empire, their subsequent misfortunes and how now they are happy within a supra-national entity, the EU. Many nominal of the 'national democracies' that were once part of Britain's African and Asian empire have not enjoyed stability and prosperity, rather the opposite. Sorry for the typo.

November 20th, 2018
9:11 PM
I teach at a Russell Group university and am generally counted as being something of an expert in particular field. I voted Brexit because I believe in nation state democracy. Making sweeping generalisations about the 'Brexiteer mind' disqualifies you as any sort of academic, it is pure bigotry and ignorance. I know people who voted both remain and leave, I would wager a fair amount of money you only ever talk to remain voters. Also, try proof reading comments, it makes them more coherent - though no less intolerant or prejudiced.

Lawrence James
November 10th, 2018
4:11 PM
This article is predicated on the flimsy assumption that a third of the electorate is somehow the authentic voice of the whole nation. It is not. Another equally questionable assumption is that historians are out of touch - they don't 'get out much' whatever that they may mean. We do. We also understand more about the past which has shaped the modern world and the nature of relations between nations. But such knowledge based upon study does count for anything in the Brexiteer mind, which is hostile to all experts, the more so when they contradict visceral passions.

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