Messages from history for Brexit Britain

By Martin Vogel

What are we to make of the chaos and uncertainty facing Britain this weekend as Parliament prepares to approve or vote down Theresa May’s deal on Brexit? Two contrasting views are on offer from writers who, curiously, both reference the Sex Pistols’ song God Save the Queen. Johnny Rotten’s punk anthem from the 1970s is a message from an era of division and chaos that ultimately led to the Winter of Discontent. Are we on the brink of returning to the abyss?

Emma Duncan thinks not. She recalls identifying in her youth with the Sex Pistols’ view of Britain as a “fascist regime”. But now, the confusion with which we have approached Brexit encourages the most panglossian of perspectives:

“This mess has brought home to me something for which I am profoundly grateful: that I live in a fundamentally peaceful and co-operative country. Through much of history and in much of the world, a division of the sort that Brexit has created – passionately felt, splitting the country in half – would have led to civil war. But that’s not going to happen here. We will very likely lose friends; we may yet have marches and riots; there may even be more murders. But while some of our politicians have behaved irresponsibly, most of them are doing their best to resolve an incredibly difficult issue peacefully. And they will succeed.”

It is surely too early to make this assessment. One of the most concerning aspects of Brexit is that politicians show every sign of being unable to resolve the issue. The period since the referendum could be regarded as a cultural civil war, in which the normal protocols of decent political engagement have been suspended. It has been, if you will, the phoney war ahead of Brexit actually happening. We are coming to the end of the beginning. If the UK leaves the EU without a deal and finds its infrastructure seizing up or if Brexit is somehow thwarted, what then? The phoney civil war could yet turn into something worse.

A more sophisticated assessment of where we stand comes from Fintan O’Toole who views Brexit as an exercise in fantasy by its proponents – what you might call “England’s dreaming”. Fintan O’Toole outlines three ways in which Brexiters have tried – as he puts it – to escape history. They constructed narratives of victimhood, each progressively more outlandish than the preceding attempt in its inversion of history – until, finally, Britain’s departure from an association of free nation states is likened to Ireland’s independence of its coloniser. He then makes an observation that I made here last week, that in Ireland a more constructive escape from history has been occurring – thanks, in part, to the courage and innovation of the British and Irish governments in advocacy of a post-modern view of national identity:

“The Belfast Agreement recognises ‘the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.’ It accepts, in other words, that national identity (and the citizenship that flows from it) is a matter of choice. Even more profoundly, it accepts that this choice is not binary. Those lovely little words ‘or both’ stand as a rebuke to all absolutist nationalisms. Identities are fluid, contingent and multiple. This is how you awake from the nightmare of history – into an embrace of the complex and fluid identities that real people have.”

Ireland’s civil war was no phoney war but the full on conflict of blood and violence, brother against brother. A century later, Ireland is throwing off the enduring legacy of civil war by embracing its place in a world of multiple and contingent identities. Its experience shows us where headstrong nationalism can lead and how to transcend it.

History, says Fintan O’Toole, is “endless search for ways in which people in all the diversity of their traditions can share space.” Little of this sophistication is likely to inform Parliament’s debate next week. For those investing hope in Parliament’s sovereignty guiding the UK from the cul-de-sac to which the Government has brought us, Chris Grey reminds us that MPs have signally failed to step up to date:

“It was to MPs’ shame that they voted, overwhelmingly, to trigger Article 50, not knowing how to do Brexit but, for the most part, knowing that however it was done it would be bad for the country. That they did so is still used by Theresa May and the Brexiters as a stick to beat them with. From that cowardly squandering of the opportunity given them by Gina Miller’s court action all this mess has flown. If, at this late date, they minimise – because that’s the very most it will be – the damage it will only underscore the folly and irresponsibility of what they set in train with that vote.”

The whole prospectus for Brexit has been a fantasy of deception and dissembling, from its inception to its implementation. Those of us who remember our Sex Pistols’ lyrics know where England’s dreaming leads.

Image courtesy S. Fitz.

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