Are There Any Meaningful Historical Analogies for Brexit?

There has been no shortage of historical events put forward to explain Britain’s current political crisis, but do any of them seriously inform debate?

The execution of Charles I, c.1649.

Simplistic analogies shed far more heat than light

Ali Ansari, Professor of Modern History, University of St Andrews

There are lessons to be learnt from our collective historical experience but what we are witnessing at the moment, in our febrile political atmosphere, is the reckless conscription of narratives to ideological purposes. This is not at all uncommon in many countries where history and politics remain unsettled and narratives are fiercely contested. But in Britain we have become used – some might say to the point of complacency – to a gentler politics and more settled history.

The politics of the past few years has clearly unsettled us and we yearn for explanations from our history. But such has been the shock to the system that in our anxiety we have responded with narratives that are both politically pointed and historically pointless. Among the more idiotic if persistent analogies have been that of the ‘War’, with each side drawing on events and personalities that suit their cause, be it Dunkirk or the rise of Fascism. Other periods have not been neglected, not least that of the Civil Wars. These, too, naturally, have their limitations, as the recent argument over whether Boris Johnson can be better identified with Charles I or Cromwell (he would probably prefer Churchill).

Myth-making remains, as always, a matter of interpretation and political preference. On the other hand, paying attention to the 17th century does remind us that British political history has been turbulent, that political views have frequently been polarised and, perhaps most importantly, that the ‘English Civil War’ is better understood as the ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’ in which problems in Scotland and Ireland rebounded – as they do today – on the politics of England.

We are blessed in these islands with a vibrant and popular historical culture. But the luxury of information does not necessarily translate into knowledge. On the contrary, an ‘excess of history’, ill-digested, serves to hinder rather than aid comprehension and, while a critical engagement with the past will undoubtedly help us understand our present, particularly in terms of broader themes and ideas, simplistic analogies shed far more heat than light.


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.


Johnson revives long-dormant strands of Toryism

D.H. Robinson​, Fellow of History, Magdalen College, Oxford

He was a cosmopolitan aesthete who invented ‘patriotism’ as a political creed; an aristocrat who attacked oligarchy; an unbeliever who defended the Church of England; an Enlightenment philosopher who devoted much of his life to journalism; and his private life produced much fare for the gutter press. He was a Jacobite who found favour from a Hanoverian prince; a Tory who evangelised Whig ideas; and he was accused of acting in pursuit of power, never on principle.

Boris Johnson is not the first Tory leader to have been accused of opportunistic populism. These words describe a man who last held office three centuries ago: Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Yet the policies with which he is associated now seem resonant. He opposed Continental alliances, framing the treaty that ended British participation in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, agitating against involvement in European affairs in the 1720s and ’30s and promoting ‘blue-water’ policies that would serve Britain’s interest over a ‘continentalism’ that would advance the Hanoverian dynasty. Later, he attacked the corruption of the Court Whig establishment and tried to replace Walpole’s government with a ministry that would rule in the interest of the country, not the court.

Many have questioned the sincerity of his patriotism, others doubt whether a Tory who admired the French monarchy could have sincerely held Whig principles, such as opposition to standing armies. Bolingbroke’s ‘real’ motives are as inaccessible to us as Johnson’s: they are also the business of clairvoyants, not historians. Perhaps it does not matter. Whether he believed them or not, Bolingbroke’s ideas, presented in works such as The Idea of a Patriot King, were widely influential. Montesquieu learned from Bolingbroke that party conflict, not civic virtue, underpinned British political liberty. Disraeli praised him as ‘the founder of modern Toryism’, who had resisted ‘attempts to transform the English constitution into an oligarchy’.

Johnson’s mixture of disengagement from Europe and anti-establishment politics is not anomalous; it is deeply rooted in the traditions of British Toryism.


Then, as now, memory must not be confused with history

Jonathan Fitzgibbons​, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Lincoln

Many parallels have been drawn between the Civil Wars of the 17th century and Brexit. Besides tired clichés regarding divided nations and families, echoes have been detected in current constitutional clashes of the wrangling between King and Parliament that precipitated the Civil Wars. Yet, seductive as these comparisons are, Boris Johnson is not Charles I (nor Oliver Cromwell).

It is not the events of the 1640s that offer the clearest historical analogy to Brexit, but rather their toxic memory. That similarities are so readily (and dubiously) drawn with the Civil Wars speaks to the enduring memory of that conflict. This was not supposed to be the case. In 1660, with the Restoration of Charles II, former Royalists and Parliamentarians were, by an Act of Oblivion, ordered to forget, if not quite forgive, events of the previous two decades. In reality, old enmities simmered for generations to come, boiling over during moments of upheaval.

This was evident during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, which saw attempts by Parliament to remove Charles II’s Catholic brother James from the succession. The cry of ‘41 is come again’ resonated loudly, suggesting the crisis was a repetition of the events that led to the Civil Wars. It was not. Then, as now, the comparison was partisan and flouted historical accuracy. Tories claimed that the Whigs were nothing more than Roundhead fanatics bent on the overthrow of church, society and monarchy. Yet this was as much a crude caricature of the Parliamentarians as it was of the aims of the Whigs. It exemplifies the point that remembering past events always takes place in the present, reflecting its values and concerns. Then, as now, memory must not be confused with history.

Recent events show that the Civil Wars continue to linger in the memories of Britain and Ireland as a touchstone for comprehending and condemning political, social and religious upheaval. It is yet to be seen whether Brexit will fulfil a similar role. Whatever the outcome, if attempts to heal divisions prove as futile as those at the Restoration, one wonders whether future generations will claim that ‘2016 is come again’?