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At the same time, this noise does not really address the counterfactuals — the “what ifs?”. The key one relates to what level best answers the need to address future problems in a way that enjoys democratic consent. The latter is the crucial element, not least because the unity for which Theresa May honourably and valiantly calls will be elusive. Such consent is a vital element because it is difficult to envisage the challenges of the future without the need to win support for difficult compromises. This is already apparent in such matters as housing, pensions and taxation, and will probably become more pressing. The opportunities to opt out of many hard choices by turning to the funds successively made available by North Sea oil, privatisation and quantitative easing have made the process of future consent more difficult.

Such consent at the national level will be very difficult, but current problems across the European Union suggest that it will be even harder at that level. Given the tendency in the EU towards convergence and a federalist centralism, then British opt-outs or divergences — whether in VAT exclusions, the percentage of those with private pensions, not being a member of the eurozone or following a particular line on immigration — may become more difficult. Yet, for many, these reflect and/or sustain particular characteristics of identity and nationhood that they do not wish to lose. Unsurprisingly, there is much here that is familiar, notably in terms of debates about identity.

Britain is a European country but that does not dictate any particular political arrangement. This also applies to the future. So many uncertainties exist: each adds speculation and hypotheses to current information. Uncertainties also serve to challenge theoretical frameworks and to pose question-marks to historic perspectives. These uncertainties relate both to Britain and to the continent, and it is never clear how to rank them and what causal links should be to the fore.

 To turn to Britain, it is unclear how far Brexit will undermine the Union and, more generally, reopen questions of Britishness, and, separately, how far it will liberalise the British economy. Such uncertainties have been pushed back as the very process of implementing Brexit has raised questions about not only what Brexit means but also whether it will occur at all.

As far as the continent is concerned, it is unclear whether President Macron will really be able to reverse the socialist tide that France has been riding since 1981 and that has pushed down its trend rate of growth. It is unclear whether the euro will continue to give Germany an unassailable economic advantage. In 2018, Hungary, Italy and Poland all displayed a willingness to oppose either the EU or its major constituent powers, or both, the new Italian government being vociferous in opposition to both France and Germany. It is unclear if Eurocrats reflect the views of the governments that appoint them, or whether they have seized power so that the EU is out of control.
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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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