A far more enlightening and hopeful read in the same issue was Robert Tombs’ reflective speculation about the future of Britain – and Europe – in the aftermath of Thursday’s results. Tombs is a historian and knows how to take the long view of contemporary events. This one, he predicted would change “us and Europe, and have an impact on the wider international system.” And that includes Ireland.
That long view contrasted with the actual campaign so much that a sense of reality pervaded the past six weeks. He wrote:
Commentators focus on spending plans and personal foibles, but what will make next week’s vote historic is something else, something so momentous that we draw back from discussing it seriously. The Lib Dems boast of Stopping Brexit, knowing that as things are now they will never have to try.
We now know where that got them – oblivion for at least another five years.
Jeremy Corbyn pleads neutrality: the first leader not sure which side he was on since poor Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses.
Not many people know the sad history of Henry VI. Were it not for Shakespeare many fewer would know it. Unless James Graham writes a companion piece to his “Brexit: An Uncivil War”, even less will be known about Jeremy Corbyn.
The Conservatives, whose hopes of office depend entirely on this issue, downplay its importance: ‘Get Brexit Done,’ ministers repeat, as if it were a tiresome distraction from real politics. Perhaps it is, if ‘real politics’ is only about mending potholes and recruiting nurses. But however much politicians, and perhaps voters, would prefer it all to go away, this election will change us and Europe, and have an impact on the wider international system.
There has always been something ironic about the Republic of Ireland’s stance on the British electorate’s Brexit decision. Tombs saw that essentially Brexit was about British independence. That Ireland, formerly – but no more – ferociously independent did not sympathise with that psychologically was always a bit of a puzzle. The answer is, of course, on the economic side. Fear of serious economic discomfort trumped psychology. Not so for the British.
Tombs sees the Brexit decision as all about resistance to being driven down a path on which Britain would have become “a subordinate component of a larger sovereign entity” Their independence, as he saw it, was not primarily a matter of the details of European laws and regulations, however voluminous; or of the creation of a common citizenship with 27 other states; or even of the intended future development of EU control in still wider areas of government. It was primarily a matter of psychology.
“Britain voted in 2016 by a clear majority to be an independent state”.
The election he said would show whether or not the British electorate would back away from that decision, “perhaps through fear of the consequences following a constant battering with anti-Brexit propaganda, perhaps through the coming of age of a new generation for whom independent national democracy appears to have little meaning.”
It was a test of stamina. Were the two and a half years of chaoatic politics and the prospect of difficulties to come going to prove too much and lead them to “surrender ultimate control of their destiny because independence was too difficult.”
Writing over two weeks ago, he was optimistic about the outcome.
Despite a humiliating trail of mismanagement, the 2016 vote will be confirmed by an electorate angry at being despised. This means that most of those who govern us — or governed us — in politics, the media, the quangocracy, the business lobbies and the universities will have been defied. Despite their strenuous efforts, they will have lost. What we have seen emerge — as in a bloodless War of the Roses — is a divided elite. On one hand, a national elite that bases its legitimacy on identification with the nation and the majority will. On the other, a transnational elite — far bigger, more determined, and less respectful of our constitution than we could have imagined in 2016 — which draws authority and a sense of entitlement from its multiple links with the EU. Defeat of the transnational elite would be a kind of peaceful revolution; and like all revolutions, its outcome is unpredictable and for some unpleasant. Most, like the Abbé Siéyès, who said his great achievement during the French Revolution was to have survived, will accept the new reality and ‘move on’. Others, like Old Regime nobles who learned nothing and forgot nothing, will go into internal exile and do their best to make trouble.
After reflecting on Britain’s long and fraught – often chaotic – imperial history, in which it often spent as much time escaping from imperial entanglements as acquiring imperial responsibilities, he concludes:
The British have been adept at escaping empires, including their own: Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin predicted that we would be part of a trans-Atlantic empire governed from New York, so the American Declaration of Independence in effect liberated Britain too. We made far less effort than the French to keep an empire after 1945. We seem to be about to escape again, this time from Mr Verhofstadt’s empire. We have long been used to relying on others for support and even to give us a sense of purpose: the empire, the Americans, the Europeans. Now that we have blackballed ourselves from the club, for the first time since the 17th century we may have to navigate our own course. We tend to put off thinking about essentials, and we shall probably vote on 12 December without having done so. But sooner or later we shall have to start thinking about what we have chosen, and what it will require of us.
Read his full article in The Spectator here.