Conservatives Global, March 23rd, Professor Robert Tombs
Professor Robert Tombs is a Fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy. This is the preface of our launch document.
The great liberal historian H.A.L Fisher is supposed to have concluded that history was no more than “one damned thing after another.” Or, more elegantly, that it was governed by “the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.” Few of us are wholly satisfied by such thin gruel: we want, especially when trying to understand great public events, to think that history has a meaning, and that things happen for deeper reasons than the ambitions or errors of individual politicians and officials, or slogans on the sides of buses. Few arguments are more powerful than those that confidently enlist the forces of history on their side: thus, Brexit is wrong because a united Europe is inevitable; or Brexit is right because our ancient political culture makes Brussels power unacceptable.
European federalism has always made use of deterministic historical argument. Integration was the wave of the future, hence those who opposed it were “nostalgic” for a dead past, and had to be educated by their enlightened leaders to embrace the inevitable: “We have made Europe”, wrote a leading French politician; “now we have to make Europeans.”
We should be wary of this kind of historical determinism, whoever uses it, for it seeks to constrain our choices by telling us that only one future is conceivable. It also, as we have seen, tends to polarize and envenom political debate.
So let us try to get away from competing pseudo-histories and attempt a rational analysis. In trying to decide how Brexit fits into history, we are really asking two slightly different questions which have considerably different answers. First, why did the UK leave the EU? Second, why did the UK leave the EU in 2016-19? The first question may indeed involve long-term developments, even going back centuries. The second will bring in “the play of the contingent”, even the slogan on the bus. Both questions are relevant, indeed indispensable, for trying to understand what has happened.