Are There Any Meaningful Historical Analogies for Brexit? Historians Respond.Breaking News
tags: British history, Brexit, Boris Johnson
Brexit has brought my own period, the Civil Wars, springing back to life
Miranda Malins, Trustee of the Cromwell Association and author of The Puritan Princess (Orion, March 2020)
As historians we are taught not to look to the past for answers to the present. Analogies can seem too easy, too anachronistic, too readily politicised. Yet it is human nature to look for patterns in what has gone before in order to illuminate what is happening now.
I prefer not to think of analogies but of resonance. Brexit has brought my own period, the Civil Wars, springing back to life: this is a ‘splendidly Stuart-style constitutional crisis’ as the historian Niall Ferguson puts it. Every day I hear phrases on the lips of newsreaders once confined to academic study – such as prerogative power, prorogation and parliamentary sovereignty. Speaker Lenthall peers out from the papers to tell me he has ‘neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me’ (I doubt that Speaker Bercow agrees). Oliver Cromwell’s dismissal of the Rump Parliament (‘in the name of God, go!’) rings in my ears as he is summoned from the dead in support of both Remain and Leave. Battle lines have been drawn once more between Parliament and the Executive.
It has been said that the Civil Wars were the first conflict in Britain not about who should rule but about how they should rule. And it is the ‘how’ as much as the ‘who’ that preoccupies us today. Brexit reminds me of the Civil Wars’ great lesson: that it is far harder to win the peace than the war; that it is easier to destroy something than to build something new to replace it. The execution of Charles I in January 1649, like the 2016 EU referendum, was a precipice: one decisive action after which no one knew what to do next. The monarchy, like the EU, was written out of our laws but what did we want instead? The 1650s was a decade of unparalleled constitutional experiments and, while it may offer no direct analogies to Brexit, its fragile uncertainty, its search for new norms and conventions after the world had been turned upside down, its tussle over what Britain should be and how to get there, resonate strongly.
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