Thursday, 7 March 2019

More historical Brexits

On wise and foolish ways to win wars: two further cases from British history which seem to me analogous to our Brexit woes.

First: the English Civil War. In which the insurgents, who had been sniping from the sidelines but thoroughly excluded from power for a generation or more, suddenly found themselves leading an attempted revolution, forced on them by the rash behaviour of the posh bloke heading the government, whose previous experience of handling a crisis in Scotland mistakenly led him to think he knew how to handle things. They stumbled into the battle without much of a clear plan, and were badly divided amongst themselves over strategy and tactics. Arguably, that is why they won: their cause could be all things to all people, who could at least agree that they were rejecting the previous regime in the name of restoring some distant golden age. But this division is why they then go on to lose the peace. The new establishment wants a sensible compromise, a readjustment of the political structure which will be recognisably a variant on what’s gone before. But the war was actually won by the hardliners and the wild men, and they will not now accept half measures. In the short term, their ability to hold the new government to ransom means they win. For eleven years, they succeed in leading the country into their new utopia. But the Restorers never go away. In the end, the Scots march south and the country is won back surprisingly suddenly and peacefully. And the experiment remains a political fable for centuries. A rump of irreconcilables lament its passing, but it is never tried again.

A Remainer fantasy? Maybe. But it is worth remembering that the eleven-year timescale is probably wrong. Things move faster nowadays.

Secondly: the Second World War. Long before the outcome of the conflict is known – even when it still looks very likely that the enemy will win – the British establishment begins to think about more than just victory and defeat. Yes, it wants to crush toxic nationalism and to restore the old international order, but it also properly confronts the fact that a return to the status quo ante is not enough. It begins the job of seriously considering what British society might look like if and when, one day, the battle is won. Reimagining health care, the economy, education, welfare and all that may seem like a distraction, or an act of presumption. Surely all our efforts should be on the present conflict, not on dreams of what we might to do one day if we win? But this is wrong, for two reasons. First, if victory does come, and it might come suddenly, it is important to know what to do with it if we ever intend to entrench it. Second, what better way to spur the population on to that victory than by making it clear ‘victory’ will not mean a return to the 1930s?

I am warier of that one, since it implicitly casts Leavers as Nazis, and I really, really don’t mean that. But those of us on the Remain side have been too focused on the day-to-day fight. There is still a distinct possibility that we will win: either that a new referendum will reverse Brexit, or that a Returner government of some shade will take us back in before too many years have passed. Creative planning for how our second era of membership of the EU will be different from the first wouldn’t just be responsible contingency preparation. It would help to bring that second era to pass.

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