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Report from the History Department & Society: Brexit Panel Discussion

Image: The Gladstone Diaries

Last night the History Society put on a well attended panel discussion on the historical implications, roots and background of the Brexit decision and the recent negotiation process. Featuring Dr. Lucy Sackville as Chair, Dr Chris Renwick, Dr. Catriona Kennedy as well as students Connor Muller, Joanne Reed and Hafsah Akhtar. The discussion veered into multiple areas of historical relevance, especially due to the constant invocations of the Second World War by Brexiteers, while simultaneously demonstrating the a-historicity and opaqueness of the whole process.

Of particular interest was the expertise of Dr. Renwick, whose experience in modern British political history gave him particularly useful insights. Especially fascinating was his belief that whenever parliament was historically gridlocked over a major policy, such as welfare reform by Campbell-Bannerman, parliamentary reform tends to follow as it did then with reform of the House of Lords. However, he also cautioned that divisions in British society are intensifying, particularly between the university-educated and others, which with the advent of mass higher education will likely lead to a further polarisation of society. Dr. Kennedy also brought in a consequential historical angle on the process, discussing how the Partition of Ireland in the 1920s left severe insecurities and worries in the heart of the Irish political establishment, feeding the insistence to keep an open border and impose the dreaded ‘backstop’. Moreover, when the discussion moved to the deeper causes of the vote she explained the long history of ‘English’ nationalism, anti-European, anti-metropolitan and rooted in protestant exceptionalism may have had a resurgence after the long years of it being submerged in New Labour’s ‘cool Brittania’.

The students themselves gave a good record, and were clearly selected for their representation of a spectrum of views on Brexit. What was utterly remarkable was the verbatim trotting out of the punch-lines of the Labour, ERG and People’s Vote campaigns, indicating exactly how much Brexit has infected political discourse in the UK. Akhtar, representing a pro-Brexit position, expressed that the vote was for ‘sovereignty’ and a result of the loss of jobs due to free movement. Contrarily, Reed spoke mainly about how a residual British imperial mentality feeds a exceptionalism that embeds eurosceptic views among average British people. This imperial discussion was especially interesting, with Dr. David Huyssen, who was in the audience, arguing that white supremacy in many British people fed the vote. This latter claim was disputed by Dr. Renwick who argued that many wealthy ethnic minorities voted for Brexit, feeling that European migration was shutting people out from the rest of the world.

Especially vocal was Connor Muller, who engaged with the notion that the chain of monetarist, anti-austerity policies since Thatcher have permanently left behind a section of the British population. This connection between economic situation and cultural frustration with cosmopolitanism is fairly well established but he also opposed any idea that English nationalism or non-economic factors were involved. When all the participants were asked at the end, what they saw as the future of the process was, Dr. Renwick made the repeated assertion that no-deal seemed like the only realistic option due to the complete breakdown in parliament. All simultaneously agreed that a second referendum would not solve any problems, and would likely lead to a complete severance of confidence in the democratic institutions by the people that felt for the first time, that they were being listened to, in 2016.

Overall, the discussion threw up some interesting conclusions. The discussions about imperial hangover and English nationalism were particularly insightful, with disagreements undoubtedly providing the fodder for future debates between historians. The fact that no-one really knew what was going to happen simultaneously reveals how unprecedented the current level of chaos is, with as of yet, no end in sight.