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Brexit: What Historians Are Saying

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Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, in the Wall Street Journal

The impact of the British vote is so profound because the emotions it reflects are not confined to Britain or even Europe. The popular reaction to European Union institutions (as reflected in public-opinion polls) is comparable in most major countries, especially France and Spain. The multilateral approach based on open borders for trade and the movement of peoples is increasingly being challenged, and now an act of direct democracy intended to reaffirm the status quo has rendered a damning verdict. However challenging this expression of popular sentiment, ignoring the concerns it manifests is a path to greater disillusionment.

Brexit is a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The British government sought a Remain vote to end, once and for all, domestic disputes about Europe in a minority of the Conservative Party and among fringe populist groups. Many backers of the Leave campaign were surprised by their success, having understood their political mission initially in much less sweeping terms.

All these elements have been overwhelmed because the European vision elaborated over decades has been developing a sclerotic character. Internal debates of Europe have increasingly concentrated on structural contradictions. In the process, the vision that motivates sacrifice is weakening.

The founders of European unity understood the ultimate scope of their project. It was, on one level, a rejection of the worst consequences of European divisions, especially the traumatic wars that had killed tens of millions of Europeans in the 20th century alone. But it was also an affirmation of the values by which Europe had become great.

Max Boot, in Commentary

Britons might never have voted to leave the European Union had it not been for the refugee crisis that hit Europe as a result of the Syrian civil war. Even though Britain has accepted only some 5,000 Syrian refugees, German premier Angela Merkel agreed to take in 800,000, thus fueling fears across the continent of an influx of possible terrorists. Those fears were exploited by elements of the “Leave” campaign, principally Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party, and no doubt contributed crucial momentum to the final outcome.

Who could have possibly imagined that one of the consequences of President Obama’s failure to intervene in Syria to stop the civil war would be Britain’s exit from the EU—a move that he opposed? This is just another reminder that international relations are a complex system with an endless number of moving parts, making the ripple effects of important decisions impossible to predict.

That realization should also make us guarded in assessing the security implications of Brexit. At first blush, they do not look good. Britain has been the most stalwart pro-Atlanticist voice in the EU. Its politicians have made a case for tougher sanctions against Russia than many of the Continental states, which are more dependent on Russian natural gas and oil.

Britain will, of course, stay in NATO, but its voice in the EU will be silenced, making it likelier that the EU will suspend or soft-peddle sanctions imposed as punishment for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That is why Vladimir Putin has been working overtly and covertly to break up the EU. Among other things, the Russian strongman has been giving aid and encouragement to anti-EU parties such as UKIP and, in France, the National Front. His ultimate objective is to break up the EU entirely—something that becomes more likely now that Brexit has passed. The EU is deeply unpopular in many of its member states. The most notable exceptions are the Eastern European states, which see the EU as a vital buffer against Putin’s aggression. If the UK succeeds in exiting, others may decide to follow suit.

All that said, Brexit does not have to be as much of a drag on collective security as many commentators (including me) fear it might be. The key variable is what sort of Britain emerges from the rubble: Will it be a Great Britain or a Little England?

Niall Ferguson, former professor of history at Harvard

The fact that none of the leading Brexiteers appears in a hurry to seize the reins of power — indeed on Friday morning they were begging Cameron to stay on for two years — tells us all we need to do about the fundamental frivolity of the Leave campaign, which assiduously denied that Brexit would have severe economic consequences. Now they would like someone else to reap their whirlwind.

What about the political consequences? The traditional British two-party system, which from the 1980s until 2015 was more like a three-party system, is now on the brink of complete disintegration. The old politics of class — so dominant in the 20th century — is being overlaid by a more complex politics of age and identity. Among the most striking features of the referendum result is the huge generational divide. Nearly two thirds of 18-to-24 year olds who turned out voted Remain. There was an equally pronounced ethnic divide. In sum, this was a victory — a Pyrrhic victory in economic terms — for older, whiter, English and Welsh provincial working class voters.

Andrew Roberts, on Twitter

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, in the Guardian

Britain cannot leave Europe any more than Piccadilly Circus can leave London. Europe is where we are, and where we will remain. Britain has always been a European country, its fate inextricably intertwined with that of the continent, and it always will be. But it is leaving the European Union. Why?

A universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards. If just 3% of the more than 33 million Brits who voted in this referendum had gone the other way, you would now be reading endless articles explaining how it was, after all, “the economy, stupid”, how British pragmatism finally won through, etc. So beware the illusions of retrospective determinism. There is always a mystery in how millions of individual voters make up their minds. It is the mystery of democracy.

This result was anything but inevitable; only death is that. Many television programmes during the referendum campaign featured lingering aerial shots of the white cliffs of Dover (it must have been good for the local helicopter trade). Yes, being an island makes a difference, but geography is not destiny. For centuries after the Norman invasion, England’s rulers saw it as part of a trans-Channel polity, together with their possessions in France. As in personal relationships, you can be together but apart – or apart, but still together.

Although the Leave campaign tried to invoke the idea of traditional British values, it completely ignored the reality of British history.

Anthony Beevor, a military history and visiting professor at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London 

Ever since the late 17th Century, we have relied on continental coalitions to oppose the over-mighty oppressor threatening the peace of Europe. Britain alone was never strong enough in manpower to confront a major power alone on land.

Our strategy always was to weaken the enemy at sea, through blockade and battle, and only then prepare a decisive battle on land.

This was the reason why Churchill persuaded the Americans to fight first in the Mediterranean before attempting the cross-Channel invasion of Northern Europe.

Ever-conscious of his ancestor, the great Duke of Marlborough, he was determined to build the Grand Alliance. And after the Second World War, Churchill famously observed that the only thing worse than fighting with allies was to fight without allies.

I have never argued that the European project of unification somehow saved the Continent from another world war. That is the EU’s self-indulgent fantasy. Peace depends on good governance. Healthy democracies do not fight each other.

Both peace and unity in Europe were possible, first because the Marshall Plan rescued a destroyed continent from misery, despair and thus Communism, and then a year later Nato began to bring the countries together in a common purpose to resist the Soviet threat. The European project, which developed just after, existed in a generally amicable parallel with Nato.

Simon Schama, a University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, on NPR

Well, I think it's certainly a turning point for the fate of the United Kingdom, which looks to be inevitably a lot less united. And we've heard about the Scots voting in enormous numbers to stay in. That now represents a problem. There was a slogan for the Brexiters, which was, take our country back. The Scots are about to say exactly the same thing, and it's going to be very hard if not impossible to deny the Scots a second referendum.

At the same time, what's happened - extraordinary kind of explosion of anger in most of Britain has given heart to nationalists in Europe who want to see off the end of the European Union. It's not accidental that those celebrating it were Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders, the Dutch nationalist....

I think what's extremely telling was that it wouldn't take long for people to familiarize themselves with the way laws are actually passed in the European Union, which is the case that a bureaucratic organization proposes laws but they cannot be passed except through the elected European Parliament and the council of ministers, which are accountable to representative governments.

But even as I say that, you can't actually say those sentences without people getting bored. So it's much easier for them to believe that those who are not elected are ruling us, and that's what caught fire.

Andrew Roberts, visiting professor at the War Studies Department at King’s College, London and the Lehrman Institute lecturer at the New-York Historical Society

For all her many and multifarious contacts with the European continent throughout her history, Britain’s insular geography has meant that for good or ill she has pursued a separate historical development from the rest of the EU, and with this vote the British people have acknowledged that there is such a thing as British exceptionalism.

In the 19th century Britain already had what the rest of European liberals wanted in terms of limited monarchy, representative government, press liberty and equality before the law, partly because we had already cut off our monarch’s head just under 144 years before the French did. No foreign armies have rampaged across our lands for hundreds of years, our unwritten constitution and common law has ensured evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress since 1688; we haven’t had the coups and massacres and civil wars and mass movements of peoples that have besmirched European history so often, right up almost to the present day.

Our separate historical development owes less to inherent genius than to the English Channel and the Glorious Revolution, but it makes us different – neither better nor worse, just different – from all the other countries of the EU, and it’s excellent that the electorate has recognised that.

Mary Beard, a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS

Robert Saunders, lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London

It seems to me what happened last night was a national vote of no confidence not just in David Cameron, but in MPs, trade unions, big business, in universities, economists and experts of all kinds....

I think we are going to feel the effects of Brexit in all sorts of areas that we are not even thinking about at the moment and I think it’s going to take several years for that to become apparent.

Amanda Vickery, a Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London

Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter

There was a fashion some time ago for historians to write about the ‘decline of Britain’. The response was usually to argue, rightly, that decline seemed rather a premature judgment. Now with the referendum result confirmed in favour of leaving the European Union, decline will be firmly back on the agenda.

For 43 years Britain has been part of an ever-expanding European-wide experiment in which European states turned their backs on half-a-century of warfare, racism and ideological division that crippled Europe’s economy and scarred more than two generations of Europeans. Whatever the economic pros and cons, the political and philosophical arguments for collaborating in common rather than as competing nations has history on its side. What will Britain gain by recovering its ‘independence’? What traditions and values have been eroded by membership? How has a sense of ‘British’ identity been lost?

Tim Naftali, a historian at New York University



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