Looking through the lens of history helps us ease the torments of Brexit

As a Christmas treat, let’s stand back from the tangles of Brexit and the backstop and take a broader look at how they’re complicating our fond old obsession with our choice of identities British, Irish and European. One of the leaders of the current debate is Fintan O’Toole  a torrentially eloquent writer who knows Britain as well as his own backyard. You’d be hard put to find an English equivalent writing about Ireland. What we see more of are endless voyages of discovery.  Hugely enjoyable is O’Toole, as he evokes in many British readers the masochism and Brit guilt that helps validate their  own opinions. Deference to an analysis imbued with the Irish historical memory of things  we wish “had never happened at all” in the Queen’s words in Dublin Castle,  applies especially to Remainers who embrace most of  the identity choices without difficulty  (i.e. me).

As we’ve noted before, Brexit has produced something of a role reversal between Britain and Ireland in which the UK finds itself isolated and Ireland on the bigger, winning side.  Yet Irish satisfaction with this change of fortune doesn’t deter them from being angry at British ” arrogance” and failure to consider the damage Brexit will do to Ireland. They give the UK no credit  at all for agreeing to a withdrawal relationship with the EU to accommodate its close connection  with the smaller island. This omission can perhaps be explained because it’s designed  to support Northern Ireland’s position within the UK rather than the  interests of the Republic.

But something in O’Toole niggles. He overdoes  the description of  English nationalism  as a delusion, a false consciousness lost in dreams of empire. Looking at Britain through the lens of Irish nationalism however enlighted is only part of the picture. If the roles were reversed and the subject was Irish nationalism, the reaction  in many quarters would be deep offence.  English nationalism as he surely  knows  is by no means all about toffs’ dream of empire or the fascist  fringe.

From many of the same people who feel left behind in England and voted Leave, its a reaction to the more favoured treatment they feel the Scots and Northern Irish enjoy under devolution. Often this is misleading. But when funds are allocated territorially to the devolved administrations  and not so clearly to the the poorer English regions who do not have such a loud voice, resentment is inevitable. The unintended consequences of devolution, among them the threat to the survival of the Union now greatly increased by Brexit, remain to be resolved when the first fallout of Brexit has died down.

It’s been a very different journey from what was expected  when devolution was inaugurated in a fit of English absence of mind  in 1998. And we all know how iconic that date is for us. The big question now is whether the trend can be halted.

I’ve come across a couple of essays that ventilate the issues from the point of views a historians – always recognising that historians usually disavow  their credentials for prediction.  In the second, we have an exchange in the Spectator between the history –trained former Labour minister Andrew Adonis, who after emerging from his Whitehall fastness, has discovered modern Ireland; and Robert Toombs the author of a terrific  history of England  who makes the case for Brexit  while remaining  an undoubted  European. He’s actually a professor of French history at Cambridge.

But first, the Oxford historian of eighteenth century Ulster and Ireland, Ian McBride tackles the issue of British ignorance of Irish history.  I have my own unlovely metaphor for this. Ireland is the bogey right under their nose which they sometimes sense, can’t quite see, and usually forget about. To redress the balance,  we should remember that Ireland is to Britain what  Britain is to the US, the smaller  partner quick to take offence when it is unthinkingly ignored  And the smaller will always know more about the bigger than vice versa. Perhaps the current role reversal  will become part of  enduring change.

Ian McBride’s piece on British ignorance of Irish history is set in a History Today article which includes  notes from the Bews, father and son and Gemma Clark of Exeter University.

    The first explanation for Britain’s ignorance of Irish history, then, has to do with the asymmetry between the two islands. Size matters, particularly when size is measured in economic or military terms. (And that is one reason for thinking that when we speak of ‘Britain’, in this case we really mean ‘England’.) The second and more interesting answer concerns the question of political legitimacy. Until very recently the English have enjoyed a sense of identity so secure as to be almost subconscious. They have often tended to conflate the condition of being English with that of being normal, so that the most puzzling problem about the rest of the world problem was why so many neighbouring nations had diverged from their own orderly processes of constitutional development.

As Herbert Butterfield put it in his wartime The Englishman and his History (1944), ‘We do not have to set about the deliberate manufacture of a national consciousness, or to strain ourselves, like the Irish, in order to create a ‘nationalism’ out of the broken fragments of tradition’. With the basic shape of the nation-state apparently resolved, British historians were able to concentrate on proper history: the evolution of parliamentary government, the industrial revolution and the rise of class politics. These were all areas in which Britain was happily a world-leader, and in which Ireland was apparently marginal.

Another way of putting Butterfield’s point is to say that, before 1922, the state in Ireland was not regarded as fully legitimate, that violent rebellion was always regarded as justifiable by a minority, and that the repression of rebels likely to alienate public opinion. Charles Townshend’s excellent book The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923 (2013) describes how British authority slipped away following the execution of the Easter rebels in 1916, and how the IRA erected a revolutionary counter-state. Townshend’s conclusion wryly observes that the repressive actions of the Irish Free State were more violent than the British regime that preceded it (three times as many republican insurgents were executed). But it survived because it was the Irish Free State. Such fundamental questions of legitimacy have not troubled the English for a very long time now. That is one reason, I think, why the English struggle to imagine what it might feel like to be stranded on the wrong side of a border, as Northern Irish Catholics did almost a century ago, in a state whose very existence was an expression of Protestant triumphalism; or to understand why Ulster Protestants have feared the reversal of that situation. Even in the age of Brexit, the passions, fears and hatreds of Irish history seem profoundly alien. As universities and schools turn to global history, however, we might discover that Ireland’s experience – of colonisation, nationalism, insurgency and civil war, not to mention poverty, emigration and diaspora – is actually more ‘normal’ than Britain’s.


Andrew Adonis and Robert Toombs on the English Question, in Coffee House exchange different ideas about English nationalism that contradict  the caricature.

Andrew Adonis

The striking fact (is that) the state of England, the nation of England, has spent far more (time) over the last thousand years in political union of one kind or another with parts of the continent, than it has with other parts of the United Kingdom.

England is one of Europe’s oldest and most powerful and largest states (and is), of course, geographically semi-detached – both from the mainland of Europe and also, crucially, semi-detached from Ireland as well. We’ve always had very, very difficult relationships with our neighbours, and at different points we’ve actually been very close to them. What we’ve never [been able] to do is to ignore them by nature of our geography, our power and our trade, and that’s as true now as it has been at any point in the last millennium.

England has had huge difficulty in getting on with not only its biggest neighbour on the continent, but crucially with its neighbour(s) within the United Kingdom. Our (relations) with other parts of the United Kingdom have been at least as problematic…as relations with our European neighbours. And the interesting thing about it is that continues to be the case up until the present day.

Now, the really interesting view that comes to my mind, is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland represent ten million out of a population of the United Kingdom of 63 million. That ten million is extremely important, it’s crucially important for future governments and the prosperity of these islands. That whole set of issues between Britain and Ireland are hugely important, too: is there going to be a hard border or not?

Robert Tombs

I don’t intend to say an awful lot about history, and the reason for this is I don’t believe that history dictates our future. (In) the 20th century, we did not, of course, suffer invasion, we did not suffer dictatorship, we did not suffer foreign rule, and therefore the fears that many of our European friends have about the possible consequences of a breakdown of the EU, we tend not to share. And, for similar reasons, the idea of loyalty to the nation, the idea of national sovereignty is much less tarnished (in Britain) than it is in many European countries.

I would very strongly contest the view that there is a fundamental difference in our history or our culture that means that we were predestined not to be part of the EU or predestined to leave it. Had we been part of the eurozone, which could easily have happened, we would not – I am quite sure – have voted to Leave.

For many people the EU is a protective organisation: it protects vested interests, it protects against foreign competition, it protects against foreign immigration, it protects against the young.

Normally, if you have a country that’s in serious economic trouble it gets a bailout, and part of the condition of that bailout is that it devalues its currency. In the eurozone, of course, you can’t devalue your currency, (so) you cut people’s living standards, you cut employment, you cut waste. But it hasn’t worked.

For countries in serious debt…this is…a systemic problem of the euro, which cannot be solved except by what the French call ‘en vol avant’ – ‘a flight forward’ – which is what the official policy of the EU is…and has been put forward strongly by President Macron. In other words, the only way of solving the EU’s problems (is) by pushing ahead to what we call a sovereign Europe, i.e. the EU and its central bodies should be responsible for budgets, employment policy, welfare policy, immigration policy, or even educational policy, in some areas. It’s essentially a managerial view of what the EU is. It’s not about giving people what…(they want but what) Macron thinks they want. If they don’t want this, it’s because they’re wrong, and they need to be told they’re wrong and they need to change their minds, which they have a number of times. European governments, legally elected, have been forced out of office. Referendum results have been reversed. We shall see whether we follow in that line.

European democracy, and this is an historical point, has a rather shallow [past]. Much of Europe has only known democracy in our lifetime. Treating democracy in the cavalier way I’m afraid the EU does seem to me to be playing with fire, (as evidenced by) the growth of extremist parties, not only in fringe countries, but also in some of the core countries

What about us? One could say, idealistically: ‘We’re a European country, our duty is to stand by our European friends and try to get them out of the mess they’ve got themselves into’. That’s a sort of William Pitt argument: ‘England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example’. The only thing that matters [is] that I don’t think Europe is in a mood to be saved, or indeed its rulers are not going to change direction.

So what should we do? It seems to me that unless you’re willing to support a system that seems to me to be a damaging system, then you should have a moral duty to leave it. And that’s what we did.

But even if you don’t think that, the question now has changed. It seems to me that the question is no longer whether it was a good idea in 2016 to leave the EU or not, whether there were small economic benefits in staying or going. The question now is: ‘How is the country governed? Who has the final say?’. Now, Parliament gave that decision to the people very clearly and unambiguously in a popular vote. A general election then saw the two main parties both endorse this position. The Labour party is now behaving in a way that seems to me utterly illogical and unprincipled, unless you think it’s only logic is a search to overthrow the government.

Just try to imagine what would happen if the noble Lords…are able to block the decision we made legally. It seems to me this would cause not only a constitutional crisis, but would cause a deep moral crisis within our political system. And I think those who advocate it are actually very, very clear in what they are doing.

So what I think will happen, either we have some sort of Brexit – I hope not too fudged – or we shall have some sort of unpredictable [crisis]. I would prefer the former to the latter, even if I voted to Remain in 2016.

So what may seem today to be the gross incompetence of government is only part of a bigger process of Parliament as a whole groping messily towards a new settlement. The outlook therefore  may not be quite as dark as it seems.  Let’s hope MPs are up to the job. It won’t be easy. For the first time since the early 1930s the UK has found it hard to produce stable majority governments out of first past the post elections. It is arguably to no one’s advantage that the DUP holds the fate of an internally riven Conservative minority government in its hands.  And Labour if it emerged as the largest single party after an election would almost certainly need the support of the SNP to form a government, with repercussions for the future of the United Kingdom.  Ireland has been in this see-saw position since the early  1980s. Perhaps they can offer lessons to the UK as part of the remarkable reversal of roles.


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