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How then will future historians assess the period inaugurated by the Brexit referendum? Many on the Remain side see Brexit as a disastrous wrong turn in the natural evolution of British history, but that reading does not allow for the repeated discontinuities in that history, notably over the last 80 years.

Instead, Brexit is likely to be seen as a particularly significant aspect of a marked process of change in Britain’s domestic and, more particularly, international position. The changes in the communist world in the 1980s were a particularly significant prelude, as large-scale migration from Eastern Europe, combined with the immigration policies of the Blair government, built up domestic anxieties about the consequences of an expanded EU. Moreover, China’s successful engagement with world trade challenged established manufacturing and commercial patterns. Brexit  may well be seen, therefore, as an aspect of the response to the end of a particular stage in communist history, which is probably not what supporters or opponents anticipated. Linked to this, Brexit may appear as an aspect of a more widespread would-be nationalism in the face of the weaknesses of supranational solutions, and notably of attempts at supranational governance.

These are international interpretations of Brexit, alongside others that can be offered. National ones also come to the fore, notably in terms of the failure of metropolitan interests and movements, whether it be the City or the self-styled progressive Left, to create a national constituency, or, indeed, to try to engage with the concerns of the bulk of the population. Indeed, but for a reluctance to opt for change and for “Project Fear”, a greater number might well have voted for Brexit. Historians may be unwilling to give due weight to this approach as most do not get out much,  preferring the company of those they identify with, which tends to mean cosmopolitan left-wingers. So, the question in part is whether a history that makes sense of the numbers who voted for Brexit can be written from within the Academy. It is likely that accusations of false consciousness will be bandied about to explain the vote. Fortunately, given the extraordinarily slanted nature of the historical profession, few outside its ranks pay it the attention it claims. There is an “impact agenda” in higher education, but reality does not match its pretensions.
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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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