One day a historian will assert that the outcome of Brexit was inevitable all along

28th November 2018

A day or so ago this blog set out that in the current fog of Brexit there were three visible paths: Deal, No Deal, or (even) No Brexit.

That is still the case, and others – no doubt more sensible – can also see other paths, such as ones which head toward a further referendum or an extension of the Article 50 period.

Today’s post is about what an odd situation this is, given we are now only a few months away from when the UK is set to leave the EU by automatic operation of law, unless (as I aways say) something exceptional happens.

We have had the Article 50 notification, we have had negotiations, we have had “sufficient progress” and a joint report, and we now have a draft withdrawal agreement agreed in principle between the UK and EU, and which has been approved at a senior level at the EU.  All which is now required is formal acceptance and ratification on both sides.

This should be the most certain point in the Brexit story so far.  All the formalities are in place for an orderly departure.

And yet: Brexit has never been as uncertain as it seems today.

No pundit or politician can confidently guess what will happen.

All we can do is work out the defaults, and the choices open so as to avoid or delay those defaults: what things require more effort or external factors and so on.

That, however, is no better than having an idea of which horses or athletes are likely to win a given race.  Some are more likely – the “ones to beat” – but that is all.

One day, a historian, with better access to official materials but with less access to the mood of the time, will assert that whatever outcome we are in for was inevitable all along.

And some pundits who currently cannot forecast what will happen will also purport to explain why an outcome was always pre-determined.

But such neatness and clarity is not available to us now.

We have only fog, and some paths visible and some not visible.

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16 thoughts on “One day a historian will assert that the outcome of Brexit was inevitable all along”

  1. Perhaps the historian of the future will hear that which we do not – an echo of the politics of the 1970’s?

    Not only is Brexit ‘unfinished business’ of that era for many of today’s Brexiters, but many contemporary themes are reminiscent.

    I wonder what hindsight will make of ‘The Causes of Brexit’?

  2. This is a very thin article for LSE.

    I would have preferred to read a lawyerly analysis of how regulation and trading standards might work in reality after 29 March over next years if WA/PD go through, with specific example from one or two sectors.

    Not sure that the writer’s analysis of how historians operate is especially well-informed: historians do not necessarily see continuous lines of ‘inevitability’ and are as prone to disagree with each other as are lawyers.

    1. “This is a very thin article for LSE.”

      I can only imagine your shock when you realise this is not the LSE website.

      “Not sure that the writer’s analysis of how historians operate is especially well-informed: historians do not necessarily see continuous lines of ‘inevitability’ and are as prone to disagree with each other as are lawyers.”

      That is why I said “a” historian, not all historians. And to the extent it matters, I am a history graduate, from the same university in your email address. You know who to blame.

      “I would have preferred to read a lawyerly analysis of how regulation and trading standards might work in reality after 29 March over next years if WA/PD go through, with specific example from one or two sectors.”

      It take all sorts, but reading posts with titles closer to your stated preference would perhaps be a useful start.

  3. It was ever thus. There is room for a novel called “The Unbearable Smugness of Hindsight”. Aside from my day job, I also write a bit of fiction and we are driven towards a narrative that involves overcoming hurdles and providing an ending that is satisfying to the reader. Such things are a luxury in real life.

  4. One day a historian will assert that Brexit was a case of history repeating itself. In view of the imminent aggression by Russia against smaller EU member countries in Eastern Europe, the UK did not want to be pressured into going to war to defend “small far-away countries whose people we don’t like and don’t want coming to live in our country”.
    A sub-text is the effective fracturing of the former NATO alliance by a US President who was being played like a puppet by his “friend” Vladimir Putin.
    The historian’s assertion, however, was suppressed by censors of her Nationalist government!

  5. It’s one of the hardest things to remember, that in history almost everybody, however intelligent or well-connected, is always moving through fog.

    A parallel. There were two long periods of constitutional crisis in the long Premiership of H.H. Asquith with almost no break between them. The “People’s Budget” crisis of 1909-11 – ending with the breaking of the House of Lords power of veto – and the Home Rule crisis, 1912-14.

    All that almost any politically active person at that time talked about were these crises. They completely gripped people’s attention for years. And those politically active people were terrified that the UK was slipping into civil war, centred on Ireland.

    And then the first world war erupted, and the Government of Ireland Act 1914 was shelved. Now, hardly anybody knows about these crises – even in Ireland.

    Conclusion: “Nobody knows anything”. Then or now. It’s a pity we don’t have an H.H. Asquith or Lloyd George on hand, though.

  6. I have said, quite rashly, on a number of occasions that I thought we would not leave. This was because I didn’t believe a way could be found that Parliament (or, for that matter, the nation) would be able to accept as not being too damaging. We are now on damage limitation, it appears, and my prediction may yet come to pass. I have to admit that for a period of time this summer, I was not so sure as people did not appear to be coming over to the remain point of view in as many numbers as I expected, but there is always a tipping point with these things and that may now have been reached. I will say again now that I think remaining in the EU is the most likely outcome!

  7. An interesting question for historians is answer why it took so long for the Irish border problem to be recognised?

    If the long term economic benefit of Brexit is to be able to sign new global trade deals and in so doing move away from EU regulatory standards, surely it was obvious that this would create the need for new checks at the Irish border?

    1. I think it rather depends where you, or rather the government of the day, decided to look. The 2017 Oxford Literary Festival Vice Chancellor’s lecture (Weds 29th March 2017), “Does terrorism work?” raised, I think in the Q&A, the Irish border issue and the Good Friday agreement as having major implications for Brexit that the British government was underestimating. So the academics knew. All the Department for Exiting the EU, or any other government department needed to do was pick up their phones to, in this case, Louise Richardson Vice Chancellor University of Oxford, or Professor Richard English, professor of politics and distinguished professorial fellow in the George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. They were both pretty clear as to what was coming down the track. Maybe DEXU or another government department did but then decided to ignore the advice, since it was inconvenient in its conclusions and came from experts.

  8. I suspect (I hope) that in the not very distant future historians will see the last couple of years in the US and the UK as having been defined by a strange collective hysteria that precludes the normal analyses of cause and effect. Their summary will be on the lines of: they all went totally mental for a while.

  9. Well, according to the Ministry of Facebook, Fake News, May-hem, and Mendacious Busses:

    “Who controls the past controls the future,” and

    “The best books … are those that tell you what you know already,” and

    On “a bright cold day in” March 2019, “the clocks” will strike “thirteen”.

  10. Possibly correct about the historian, but if Brexit happens despite the evidence that it is not in the national interest and that there were no mechanisms to stop it, he/she may equally also pinpoint this period as the moment the the UK’s political system finally broke.
    But in terms of epochs and cycles, for some reason Dean Acherson’s quote:
    “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role” to me seems pertinent. We may just be at the end of the post-war situation. Where the country goes from here is anyone’s guess. Thanks for the blog and the FT articles.

  11. Wonderful comments all with a most witty reply (worthy of Lady Bracknell) by DAG. I have long felt that Brexit won’t happen. You cannot up pop popped corn.
    It is important also to remember that the Norwegian alternative arose the historical forced unions with Denmark and then Sweden are still raw and painful. Norwegians were viewed by the Scandinavian “bothers” (I began to type brothers and my typo seemed so right.) as poor rustics and Norwegian as merely Danish with a Swedish accent. Well “who has the last laugh now.”
    My point here is that even Norway plus requires huge contributions to the EU, obedience to most of its rules, with no access to the room where it happens.

  12. My own prejudiced forecast before June 23, 2016, based on some experience of the EU, was that the EU was an entity of sufficient complexity such that Brexit was never likely to happen in the terms on which it was offered. Perhaps, in line with your own thoughts we ought to remember Mac’s warning about “events, dear boy”?

  13. History is notoriously written by the winners, various polls tell us that Brexit voters are generally educated to a lower level than Remainers. One could speculate that the Brexit history is more likely to be written by the losers. There may be no heroes in the future text, Psychological projection from Remainers will ensure the negative qualities of our leaders will written up at greater length, perhaps with extra creativity.

  14. This the point in the process when it gets really messy, not when it becomes clear. An extension of the article 50 process will requested and be agreed with a strict timetable to carry out either a general election or more likely a referendum. Should neither be forthcoming in the time allotted, the UK will try to revoke article 50, an interesting dilemma for the EU.

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