The issue of ‘Britishness’ clearly underpins much of the current crisis facing the UK: how, in these uncertain post-Referendum/pre-Brexit times, is ‘Britishness’ understood, who belongs, and, importantly, who is excluded? With 31 October looming ominously, the future well-being of core British institutions is generating enormous anxiety. In the case of the UK’s ‘flagship’ National Health Service (NHS), doctors’ representatives and members of the public alike are warning that a no-deal Brexit poses an existential danger to public health, threatening shortages not just of trained staff but of medicines ranging from flu vaccines to anti-cancer drugs. Earlier this month, an open letter to MPs written by the chief executives of three key health charities (the King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust) jointly summarised the major areas where a no-deal Brexit would be felt most sharply in health and care, which included increasing already serious workforce problems in the NHS and scarcity and seriously increased costs of essential medical supplies.
However, while many of us are collectively holding our breath when it comes to what will or will not happen next on the Brexit front, it is worth taking a moment to think historically about what constitutes a ‘British’ institution. Let’s take the Royal Navy, for example, which defended the nation against its continental foes during the early 1800s. Perhaps more than any other institution, the Royal Navy in its heyday epitomised ‘Britishness’ – in the words of its own website, ‘the history of the United Kingdom is the history of the Royal Navy’. But we should not forget that over 20 nationalities are recorded as having fought on Nelson’s ship ‘The Victory’ at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. As the very timely research undertaken by Sarah Caputo, a PhD student at Cambridge, has highlighted, during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign – non-British – sailors, but the national status of these men did not diminish or prevent their contribution to what at the time were seen as Britain’s vital interests.
Ever since it emerged ‘kicking and screaming into life’ in July 1948, the NHS has come to symbolise the kind of ‘Britishness’ about which many people in this country have felt justifiably proud. For the first time anywhere in the world, completely free healthcare was made available on the basis of citizenship rather than the payment of fees or insurance. But like its nineteenth-century naval predecessor, this particularly British institution came to be increasingly staffed by people who arrived from elsewhere to work in it, and sustain its reputation. The early recruitment of nurses and doctors from the Commonwealth, for instance, is widely recognised as having underpinned its operation over the last seven decades. This is not to say that the public response to the NHS’s diverse workforce has always been a positive one. Roberta Bivins has recently highlighted the extent to which it was the work of so-called ‘racialised migrants’ in the NHS that was most frequently visualised in the press, and often in a negative fashion, something that was highly revealing of perceptions of race and ethnicity in post-war Britain. But as of March 2019 13.1% of NHS staff reported a non-British nationality, hailing collectively from around 200 countries.
The history of British universities looks pretty similar. For decades UK higher education has been touted as one of the country’s finest exports to the world. International mobility has for long been integral to this ‘national’ success story. UK universities have indisputably benefitted from possessing a highly international workforce, which before the Second World War included refugee scholars fleeing from Nazism. If we fast-forward to 2015, over a quarter of academic staff (28% of nearly 200,000) were non-UK nationals, 60% of whom hailed from the EU. Only Switzerland at that time could boast a more internationally mobile set of people working in this sector. By 2017-18 (that is after the Brexit referendum) the proportion of academic staff coming from outside the UK had risen to 31% according to HESA ‘facts and stats’. The study of History, like many other academic disciplines, is hugely enriched by being able to draw on the range of historical perspectives that a diverse workforce offers. As with the NHS, however, uncertainties over Brexit have taken a direct toll on the global standing of British universities, adding to existing financial pressures that were already creating problems as far as sustaining their collective reputational status was concerned.
So while many of us may well be focusing with trepidation on what ‘Britishness’ in a recalibrated post-Brexit future will look like, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the deeply international character of institutions, both past and present, that have been or currently are regarded as quintessentially ‘British’.
There has been a lot of talk and speculation recently about Brexit undermining the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA) because it may impose a hard border, and the current peace process is predicated on an open border. Indeed, the bomb explosion in Fermanagh on 19 August has been linked to ongoing negotiations over the backstop and the political stalemate in Stormont. Some of these assertions are problematic. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but GFA is not a buffet. You can’t pick the bits you like (its position on the border, for instance) and ignore the parts that are complex and take more energy to implement (such as cultural rights and transitional justice).
For the last two decades, both the Irish and British governments, and the media, have congratulated themselves on a job well done, missing the fact that the 1998 agreement was merely the start of the process, not its conclusion. Indeed, what we currently have is more of an armistice than a peace process. There may be a reduction in large-scale violence – and this is a good thing – but meaningful reconciliation seems as unattainable now as it was in the 1970s, and a genuine commitment from the British and Irish governments has slipped far down both of their priorities and agendas.
In recent months, I’ve lost count of the number of politicians and political commentators who have warned that Brexit is jeopardising the peace process, and a return to direct rule will ‘put the Good Friday Agreement in the bin’. Without downplaying the impact that Brexit will have in Ireland, North and South, I think it’s time we were realistic about the health of the Agreement. At the risk of stating the obvious, the problems in Northern Ireland predate Brexit. The suspension of the Stormont Parliament in 2017 had nothing to do with the border or Britain’s imminent departure from the EU. The backstop, a soft Brexit, or even the overturning of the 2016 referendum result, will not solve the problems there. Rather, the collapse of power-sharing is the result of two decades of political neglect by the British and Irish governments.
The increase in activity by dissident republicans in the last two years is not due to Brexit, but rather to poverty, inequality and austerity – the same problems that existed in the 1960s. Some may argue that Brexit will exacerbate these issues, and while that may be true, it is disingenuous to put all the blame there. Those who voice these concerns do so because the ceasefire is under threat, not the peace process. In truth, it is arguable that Northern Ireland has even experienced a peace process in the last two decades.
Twenty years on, and the Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Consultative Civic Forum, and the North-South Ministerial Council are not working. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has held just two meetings in twelve years and the Assembly has been suspended as often as it has been in operation. Indeed, in 2013 Richard Haass, the American diplomat who was tasked with finding a way forward on the intractable issue of dealing with the past, warned that Northern Ireland could no longer be held up as a model of conflict resolution because, despite some movement in terms of residential segregation and shared schooling, the fundamental divisions remained unchanged: over 93 percent of children are still educated separately, interface walls continue to divide communities, and sectarian riots are accepted as routine annual events. Both unionists and republicans/nationalists remain entrenched in their imagined pasts. Since 1999, there have been annual disputes over Orange Order parades, with a violent standoff at New Lodge this summer, with paramilitary undertones. Dissident republicanism has been on the rise since 2009, when the Real IRA shot dead two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in County Antrim. The latest bombing in Fermanagh may be using Britain’s difficulty over a no-deal Brexit to grasp an opportunity at Irish unity, but dissident republicans would have found other opportunities had the issue of Brexit not developed.
Like other societies transitioning from conflict, Northern Ireland continues to be haunted by legacy issues and the intractable question of how to deal with the past. It has not been for the want of trying. Since 1998, there have been numerous attempts to create the ‘architecture’ needed to deal with the past, including Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s ‘We Will Remember Them’ report, the Eames-Bradley Report, the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations, and the Stormont House Agreement. The main problem is that political parties keep getting bogged down in issues of blame, and the legal, political, and societal strands of the process are entangled. This means that progress on issues like an oral history archive, a timeline of events, and information recovery are log-jammed.
It is not denied that both the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement (2006) have prevented the return of large-scale violence; however, the model on offer from the top is peace without reconciliation. It is not just intractable issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past that are hampering progress; there is also a failure to advance ‘bread and butter’ issues such as health, welfare and education, and the region ranks among the slowest in its recovery from recession for the UK as a whole. There has been little change in poverty rates over the past decade, and welfare reforms currently being rolled out by a Tory government, whose economic policy for the last ten years in power has been one of austerity, will have a negative impact on the most vulnerable households and will result in increasing child poverty and destitution rates.
What is jeopardising the return of a functioning Executive to Northern Ireland more than Brexit is the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. Whether this arrangement would have been made if the Tories were not trying to get their Brexit deal through the Commons is debatable, but it confirms beyond doubt that the British government is not a neutral, non-partisan broker between the protagonists in Stormont, and this realisation puts the future of the GFA in doubt. Both the Downing Street Declaration (1993) and the Good Friday Agreement unequivocally stated that Britain had ‘no selfish or strategic interest’ in remaining in Northern Ireland and agreed to the principle of self-determination on the basis of consensus of the people. In January 2019, the British government declared that it would ‘never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union. Our steadfast belief is that Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom’. While the language change is subtle, the increased tensions between the British and Irish governments in recent months, as well as Boris Johnson’s dismissal of Sinn Féin’s suggestion that there should be a referendum on Irish unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit, demonstrates that this significant advance of the peace process is now in doubt. Not only that, but it is also becoming alarmingly clear that the Irish government is getting cold feet on the issue of Irish unity, despite accepting it as a legitimate political position in 1998.
It is difficult to predict what might happen in Northern Ireland if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. What is clear, however, is that Brexit or not, the Good Friday Agreement is on life support, and it’s hard to see it pulling through.
In the spring of 1848 Europeans rose up on the streets of dozens of continental cities from Budapest to Paris and Berlin to Milan. Their demands were disparate and sometimes contradictory: free assembly, representative government, national self-determination, economic reform and much else besides. After initial successes, many of these revolutions followed a common pattern: reform, violence, division, repression and ultimately failure. By the following year constitutions had been torn up, newspapers banned and activists exiled.
After Brexit it is not the revolutions of 1848 that should capture our attention but rather what came next. As Chris Clark has shown, the 1850s witnessed a collective European experiment in which ruling elites mixed politics in new combinations in an attempt to respond to and address the instability that had produced revolutionary situations across Europe. The regimes that took over after 1848 did not simply carry out a conservative ‘reaction’, shutting down elections and newspapers. Innovative and expansive, they sought to provide the sort of order that would reassure threatened elites while also alleviating the social tensions that had made politics so dangerously volatile.
Importantly, governments in the affected countries began adopting a newly assertive role in economic and public life. The Spanish government laid telegraph cables to the Balearics, Central European states built railways and drove tunnels through the Alps. Many regimes also experimented with novel techniques for managing public opinion through the press and measuring social problems by gathering statistics.
France’s Emperor Napoleon III was emblematic of this trend: first elected as President Louis-Napoleon under universal suffrage in the wake of 1848, his longer-term survival relied on his ability to build a coalition of interests that represented apparently contradictory drives. His governments appeased big financiers and banks while granting workers the right to strike, renovated Parisian slums while expelling many of their residents, and ruled by plebiscites held under universal suffrage while all but outlawing conventional party politics.
We may not have seen a revolution in the past two months, but we are certainly living through another age of trans-European political disillusionment and ideological remixing. Brexit is but one symptom of the contradictions that are rapidly dismantling assumptions about the politics-as-usual status quo. Political forces across Europe and beyond are engaged in a struggle to fuse the popular appeal of protectionism and nativism with the interconnection and cosmopolitanism they see as intrinsic to modern societies and essential to their economies. At the same time, they seek to reconcile these divergent impulses with the distinctive features of their national political cultures – secularism and the republic in France, the union in Britain, and so on.
Yet just because these forces look irreconcilable does not mean that the Louis-Napoleons and Bismarcks of our age will not find ways to fuse them together, however delicately.
Faced with these challenges and a hostile public in much of England and Wales, pro-European Brits might be tempted to throw in the political towel altogether. But as writers such as Flaubert and Marx recognised from very different political perspectives back in the mid-nineteenth century, there is no ‘elsewhere’ outside history to which one can flee. Equally, while Britain’s role in the specific political institution of the European Union is now coming to an end, our implication in common European historical processes is, if anything, becoming even clearer.
On 26th June I tweeted:
No government, economic stagnation, anti-immigrant populism, political fragmentation: my fellow Brits, today at last we are true Europeans!
I was only half-joking. We may soon cease operating within some of the legal, administrative and economic channels with which we have become familiar, but there is no escaping the broader structural and cultural bonds between Britain and the rest of the continent. Only through sharing ideas with our neighbours will we be able to develop responses to the centrifugal forces of our age that can challenge the populist and quasi-democratic solutions on offer to European publics.
In recent decades Britain’s pro-Europeans did not always bang the drum about the benefits of certain forms of collaboration, integration and exchange with our neighbours loudly enough. We are now entering a new era, and we need a new drum.
The Brexit referendum was about something far bigger than Britain’s political and economic relationship with the rest of Europe. School pupils and university students spontaneously broke into tears on the morning the results came in, seeing their future life prospects destroyed. At the same time, people who look or sound different were told by triumphant leavers to ‘pack your bags and go back where you came from’, across the country and without any apparent coordination or official political backing. Such happenings are ominous, and they become more ominous still if serious incidents such as the murder of an MP as a perceived ‘traitor’ to the nation are factored in. Many of us historians have developed a special sense for such moments because we are trained to connect the dots intuitively and imaginatively. We have seen similar outbursts of collective emotion in the past and know what they can harbour – situations like 1789 in France, 1947 in India, 1990 in Yugoslavia.
There has been a widespread sense of disquiet about the state of the world for some years now. The ability to visualize a better future has never in living memory seemed so remote. It feels as if Francis Fukuyama’s much maligned ‘end of history’ has been stripped of its messianic optimism and then never gone away. A dark cloud of ‘there is no alternative’ has being hanging over us. There have been global pandemics like swine flu or Ebola, environmental disasters and unusual natural events, and the diffuse threat of Islamic terrorism has combined with a sense of economic crisis to produce a generalized climate of fear and foreboding. Yet until Brexit struck, this sense of impending doom still seemed to be somewhat intangible; perceptible below the surface but not powerful enough to disrupt the order of everyday life. Now, it feels as if things are at last kicking off for real. One historian on Twitter began to wonder half-jokingly whether people a century hence will speak of the ‘generalized crisis of the early 21st century’, others whether the year 2016 would be remembered as the date when the dissolution of the world as we know it began in earnest.
In times like these, history can be a great consoler. By standing back and contemplating larger connections and storylines, the febrile mind can at last find a grip, a resting place that offers some sense of ‘taking back control’. But such consolation should come with a health warning. Getting a grip is not the same as optimism, let alone offering a workable vision for political action. Some of the best long term analyses have been driven by the experience of defeat. Think of Fernand Braudel, who discovered the agency of geographic features over the longue durée when incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp. Or of Antonio Gramsci who wrote his exceptionally perceptive interpretations of history from a fascist prison cell. It is Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect’ rather than his ‘optimism of the will’ that colours the way we see the world today. Making sense of Brexit within a larger historical framework is like staring into the abyss in order to make one’s fears more manageable, an exorcism by anticipation, perhaps.
The books that I felt most compelled to revisit in response to the Brexit crisis all deal with the historical sociology of capitalism. I had come across some of this material as a student in the early and mid 1990s, but until recently, lost sight of it to explore other intellectual territories. Most of it is of Marxist provenance broadly construed – more precisely of North American Marxist provenance, where big picture analyses of the global economic system have received particularly careful attention. Relevant names include (among others) Immanuel Wallerstein, Saskia Sassen, David Harvey, Royal Holloway’s own Sandra Halperin, and somewhat peripheral to this tradition, the German historian of capitalist crises, Robert Kurz.
There are several reasons why this body of literature seemed to be particularly appealing when trying to make sense of Brexit. In the first instance, the referendum has been accompanied by the ongoing self-destruction of the British Labour Party, and a general reassessment of left theory and practice going back to first base seemed appropriate and pressing for the moment. Before we can even argue about what kind of politics we now need, we need to know where we stand in terms of big-picture stuff. In addition, the emotional flavour of this historical sociology chimed with the post-Brexit blues. The authors involved were all more or less shaped by the experience of belonging to an intellectual tradition – Marxism – which had not the slightest chance of wider political relevance where they lived or worked, the USA. But they carried on writing regardless, and with a heightened sense that at least intellectually they could defeat an otherwise overwhelming system. And, perhaps most importantly, there seemed to be an immediate fit with the empirical evidence. The map of how Britain voted over Brexit – with ‘remain’ areas coloured yellow and ‘leave’ areas coloured blue – was an almost perfect illustration of some key arguments that had been made in this body of scholarly writing.
The historical sociology of global capitalism, then, is the grand narrative which can help us situate Brexit, its causes and consequences. It allows us to read the referendum result as an outward sign – local and specific to the UK – of a much wider structural contradiction which is currently transforming the world as we know it. What is at stake is enormous, and holds the frightening but real possibility that our future may be a good deal less democratic than our present.
Let us begin with a key contention: over its long historical formation, capitalism has only occasionally and in very particular locations marched in step with the two other trademark institutions of modernity, the nation state and democracy. For most of the modern period, capitalism has produced economic and political geographies that cut across the nation state in various ways, and relied on means of political organization that involved some degree of authoritarianism and coercion.
This is immediately evident when we take a global view of capitalism in its formative period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. This was never just a story of an industrial (or as some would have it, an ‘industrious’) revolution in one particular territory such as Britain, operating in tandem with the creation of new citizens equal before the law, and their gradual incorporation in political decision making. There was always another side to it: first, what Marx originally called ‘primitive accumulation’, the forcible appropriation of peoples, places and goods in the first rush for capital accumulation. It was exemplified by the enclosure of common lands, the infamous highland clearances or the robber-baron colonialism of the East India Company. Then came the no less brutal but more systematic disempowerment of the majority of the world’s population on racial grounds under European empires. In some places, and for three centuries or more, this included capitalist slavery, the most coercive system of labour management imaginable. The link between authoritarianism and capitalism did not end there. The twentieth century brought forth capitalist dictatorships around the world, including communist dictatorships. Against other sections of the Left, much of the literature under review argues that communists were politically successful in many parts of the global South and underdeveloped East not because they were anti-capitalist, but, on the contrary, because they offered a turbo-charged version of capitalist development directed and monopolized by the state. This is what Lenin’s famous celebration of ‘electrification of the whole country’ and Mao’s ‘great leap forward’ were all about. The untold horrors committed in the name of communist development are as much part of Robert Kurz’s ‘black book’ of global capitalism as modern slavery.
Whatever may have changed over these centuries, capitalist development was rarely confined within national boundaries (the communist path to development is a possible exception). More often than not, the global capitalist elite was transnational in orientation. The members of this elite shared a common culture built around such things as opera, a love for renaissance art and classical education. They intermarried across borders. They owned assets in several countries. Friedrich Engels, German industrialist with strong British connections, was by no means unique; even a quintessentially German company like Siemens had British as well as German family branches before the First World War. Capitalism constituted, as Immanuel Wallerstein once famously called it, an emergent ‘world system’ linking metropolitan core areas in Europe with colonial and semi-colonial peripheries around the globe. Colonial Guyana in South America provides a perfect example: labour came from Africa (initially as slaves), from India (as part of the indentured servitude system) and from China; they worked plantations owned by international shareholders to produce cash crops like sugar which had to be shipped across the Atlantic to be sold to mostly working class consumers in Europe’s industrial heartlands. The profits went into anything from railway companies to city banking houses and village church renovations. It should be noted that this self-fuelling and highly exploitative system continued, and become more efficient, in the 150 years after slavery was formally abolished in the region. At their most productive, around the mid-twentieth century, the sugar plantations of British Guiana were unique in that they produced not one but two annual crops.
There was only one relatively brief period when the common-sense picture of capitalism applied, when a flourishing ‘national’ economy coincided closely with the borders marked on a political map, and when economic reproduction went hand in hand with democratic governance. This was the time between the end of the Second World War and the emergence of a neo-liberal economic system in the late 1970s. Over these three decades – but even then not everywhere – an economic logic of industrial manufacture, mass consumption based on rising incomes across the working and the middle class, of state planning, and a more or less consensual form of politics prevailed. This is capitalism as it is most familiar to us: of workers manufacturing goods like cars or TV sets and earning enough to then buy these same items back for their personal enjoyment. This system still relied on the basic Marxist category of exploitation, but nevertheless functioned for some time as a self-sustaining engine of prosperity creation for the many.
All this began to change in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, which ushered in a global recession. Capitalism survived and reinvented itself, but with a new modus operandi that had become firmly entrenched by the 1990s, and is ultimately responsible for the dislocations that Brexit brought to the fore. The main method of surplus creation shifted from labour exploitation to financial speculation and ‘securitisation’, a new form of primitive accumulation by stealth, as Saskia Sassen describes it. This new system no longer requires people to be turned into capitalist labourers or consumers for it can create wealth without people. For the first time, this means that capitalism is no longer expanding – seeking to bring more people and territories under its control as it had done for the last many centuries. Instead it grows richer by ‘expulsions’ (again Sassen’s term), by getting rid of people in order to speculate with what they leave behind. Sub-prime mortgages foreclosed in dying American cities, landscapes ransacked by fracking or mining, bodies plundered for organ donations and patented for medical copyright, whole populations killed or displaced while the international arms trade makes a fortune.
Even though the wealth concentrated at the top has increased enormously since the days of the welfare state, this is not a self-sustaining system. As some historians of capitalism have pointed out, capitalism may well have entered a final crisis mode. The current slowing of growth around the world may be the first concrete evidence of this disturbing trend. While the rich economies of the North are in or close to recession, countries that have previously been held up as hopes for a globalised future are in deep trouble, too. China sits on a mountain of real estate debts while the economy slows, and India had to falsify official data by its Central Bank to maintain any semblance of economic growth outperforming population growth.
The geographic shape of the new system once again transcends national boundaries. There are new and reinforced global links cutting across the old division between a rich North and a poor South, exemplified by new areas of global ‘outsourcing’ and glittering global cities on all inhabited continents. The new structures also create growing regional disparities within national economies, between the nodal points of a still thriving global network and areas of ‘expulsion’ for which the system no longer has any use. This brings us directly back to the referendum map mentioned above. The yellow areas voting for ‘remain’ in England and Wales coincided almost perfectly with areas that still have a stake in the global economy: London and its wealthy hinterlands, the M4/M40 corridor of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Britain’s knowledge cities like Manchester, Cambridge, Leeds or Aberystwyth. Those areas that voted ‘leave’ by the largest margins, in contrast, were the old industrial heartlands and rural areas now left behind.
This explanation of the geographic shape of the Brexit vote is powerful but not in itself particularly original. Many have made this point without recourse to Marxist meta-history, not the least ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown who demanded that globalization had to work for everyone not just the few. Other commentators believe that Brexit will usher in a wider people’s revolt against the excesses of neo-liberalism. It is here that the perusal of the historical sociology literature offers a starkly different perspective. If the likes of Harvey, Sassen and Kurz are right with their grand narratives of capitalist development then it is unlikely that a political upset like Brexit can alone reverse deep structural developments. Unless it is forced into a yet completely unknown new modus operandi – for which there is little evidence – global capitalism will continue to rely on ‘expulsion’ as its main method of surplus extraction. That it has also entered crisis mode can only mean that regional disparities between core areas and left-behind areas will grow further still. Tax and spend, or a politics of redistribution, will no longer work as a remedy. Insofar as Brexit was a vote to take us back to the days of a national economy it cannot fulfil its core promise. (It is worth noting that there was also a leave argument at play that argued for more rather than less globalization – David Owen’s new ‘blue water diplomacy’, for instance, or Andrea Leadsom’s new trade deals, but this theme was quickly overshadowed by a rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ over national borders.)
This is not simply speculation. In countries with longstanding regional disparities across Europe – Italy with its industrial North and mezzogiorno South, say, or East and West Germany – the divide has become sharper over recent decades, despite long-standing and hugely expensive ‘development efforts’ by the countries themselves or by the EU. Meanwhile, across Europe, the gap between the networked core – located mostly in the North – and the expulsions areas in the South has also intensified. It is happening elsewhere, too, from Nigeria’s increasingly unbridgeable split between North and South to India’s great divergence between the Western and Southern coastal regions and the Northern ‘cow-belt’. It is very unlikely that the people of Sunderland or the Welsh Valleys will be any luckier than those in Greifswald in East Germany, Trapani in Sicily, or indeed Patna in India’s Bihar, when it comes to their state’s ability to overcome inequality through redistribution or protectionism.
This brings us to the crux of this exercise in historical analysis: what will be the political effects of these structural contradictions? A steady growth in the number of people who are of no use to the system, not even good enough to be exploited or to buy useless commodities, and a simultaneous crisis of the system as a whole will produce a colossal amount of discontent. Those who still have a stake in global capitalism, meanwhile, will seek to protect their life chances tooth and nail – as the emotional reaction of so many ‘remainers’ to Brexit demonstrated beyond doubt. The interests of those living in the still thriving network core and those in left-behind areas have become irreconcilable. One’s dream has become the other’s nightmare, while there is still no alternative political economy that could overcome such divisions in sight. How is this conflict going to be managed through democratic institutions? How is system compliance and consent going to be generated within a geographic framework – the nation state – that no longer fits the shape of the political economy?
One can think of several possibilities here. Discounting the unlikely event that the people of Britain collectively decide to leave the capitalist order altogether and try out some other system on their own, two alternatives stand out. First, areas that are small enough, well-connected enough and have the kind of identity politics in place to sustain such a move, may seek to become small independent nation states that play the new global system for what it is worth. Catalonia in Spain is a good example. Scotland is clearly weighing up its options to follow this path.
Where such secessionist moves are less feasible – as in England and Wales – some kind of artificial consent will have to be manufactured by means of an authoritarian political order. The Chinese Communist leadership is perfectly open about the need to manage regional disparities in their own country through repression, and justifies it with reference to a Confucian political culture. Elsewhere – as developments in Hungary and Poland, in Erdogan’s Turkey, Modi’s India and Putin’s Russia suggest – there is a trend towards majoritarian pseudo-democracy. A climate of radical nationalism prevails, post-truth politics becomes the norm, universities and the media are purged of opposition, perceived minorities are used as scapegoats, an artificial and hollow ideology of consumption and development spectacle papers over deprivation. But people are still able to vote, in fact, are even invited to vote to periodically consecrate the holy union of popular will and populist leadership.
It is not even necessary for a rabidly authoritarian party with genocidal urges, such as Narendra Modi’s BJP, to gain power for such a system to work. It is sufficient if such a party is strong enough to compel everybody else to rally behind a pro-establishment alternative that governs solely on the promise of keeping the barbarians at bay. Such a perennial party of power would have a free hand to resort to authoritarian measures as long as they remain marginally less off-putting than those demanded by the other side. Discontent will remain high, but has nowhere else to go but to the radical nationalists who stand in perpetual opposition, thereby only reinforcing the dominance of the ‘centre’.
Such a situation is by no means inconceivable in post-Brexit Britain. In fact, one can already see the contours of it taking shape: witness the implosion of the Labour Party in line with what is happening to other social democratic parties around the world, the emergence of the Tories as the only ‘centrist’ alternative in a world where the ‘centre’ has moved very considerably to the right, and an entrenchment of UKIP and assorted right-wing extremists as the attack dogs that prop up the system from the outside.
You have been warned – historical analysis in times like these is likely to yield depressing results. The only consolation is that even the best structural analysis does not fully accommodate human agency which will always remain unpredictable. The best historians can hope for at this juncture is that they are wrong.
I’m not British but I did get to vote in the referendum on British membership of the European Union. Irish people resident in the United Kingdom were one of just three non-Commonwealth immigrant groups that were afforded this privilege, which I felt gave me a real stake in the future of the country that is now very much my home.
Personally, while I can certainly understand popular disaffection with the EU, I was never in the slightest doubt about voting against Brexit. On every conceivable level – economic, social, political and cultural – remaining within the Union seemed to make such obvious sense. The blatantly xenophobic aspects of the leave campaign just made the decision to vote in favour of remaining all the easier; a vote for staying in the EU wasn’t simply an informed political choice, it was a vote against Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, and every mean and petty thing for which they stand. So the result of the referendum came as a shock, not because I hadn’t realised that an ‘out’ vote was a real possibility, but because, in the blinking of an eye, a truly great country seemed to have become palpably smaller and colder.
But the outcome of the referendum is an inescapable reality and, with it, a page has turned in British history. Historians had a lamentably limited impact on the debate about Brexit, despite the best efforts of at least some of them. There is still hope, however, that they may be able to influence the choices people make in the coming months.
The pitfalls of Brexit seem almost too numerous to contemplate. They also seem to increase daily as we descend yet further into political chaos. Indeed, the atmosphere of national jeopardy fuelled by the hour-by-hour machinations of the political elites would be pretty exciting if it wasn’t all so serious. So many things about the result of the referendum give cause for concern that it’s hard to focus on one especially unsettling outcome. Yet whatever else may worry us, the degree to which the UK’s impending exit from the EU has undermined Britain’s relationship with Ireland, and the integrity of the peace process in Northern Ireland, should give everyone on these islands pause for thought.
Given the shadow of uncertainty the result of the referendum has cast over the ongoing peace process, it seems like a good time to reflect on the role history played in respectively fuelling violence and helping people move beyond violence in Britain and Ireland within living memory. The story of the Northern Irish conflict is one of cruelly unexpected death, widespread bereavement, and lives blighted by fear, anger and bitterness. But it is also the story of a remarkably resilient people whose desire for peace led them ultimately to reconsider their attachment to the past and embrace compromise and reconciliation.
For this was a war – and a peace – that was all about the memory and interpretation of history.
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Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another EU state. From the early 1970s until the late 1990s that border was heavily militarised and dotted with army checkpoints and watchtowers. The peace process, which, crucially, was aided a great deal by the EU context in which it evolved, meant that the border had essentially ceased to exist physically for the past fifteen years. The region is unlikely to be re-militarised, but when the UK leaves the European Union there will have to be a functioning border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which, if the Leave campaign’s promises of controlled immigration are to be delivered upon, will presumably have to be policed as such. These altered dynamics directly threaten the close political, social and cultural relations between North and South that have been painstakingly fostered since the emergence of the peace process in the mid-1990s. As with so much about the referendum, no plans seem to have been put in place to address this potentially very dangerous outcome.
One of the more compelling arguments David Cameron put forward as he led the ill-fated campaign to keep the UK in the EU is that steadily increasing levels of inter-state communication and collaboration have helped preserve peace in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. It is certainly true that those who envisioned a more unified Europe during the darkest days of the Nazi terror hoped that greater economic and political integration would ensure that European states would become so interconnected that it simply wouldn’t be possible for them to go to war against each other. It is also quite obviously the case that no inter-state conflict has occurred in Western Europe since 1945. Yet while no two western states have gone to war over the past 70 years, there has been a great deal of political violence in the region, most notably within the United Kingdom, which was the scene of consistent and often intense violence throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The peace process has trundled on since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and in the past decade or so Islamic fundamentalism and right-wing extremism have generally been regarded as greater threats to British security than Irish republicanism. It has thus been quite easy in recent years to forget just how devastating the conflict we still euphemistically refer to as ‘the Troubles’ actually was. In strictly military terms, the war in Northern Ireland could accurately be regarded as a ‘low-intensity’ conflict, a case of asymmetric warfare that required a military commitment but never the full deployment of the armed forces. And yet between 1969 and the Provisional IRA ceasefire of 1994, over 3,500 people lost their lives as a direct result of violence in Northern Ireland or emanating from the region. This includes approximately 1,000 members of the British security forces, over 720 of whom were British soldiers, and about 500 Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. As is usually the case with urban guerrilla warfare or terrorism, however, most of those who died were unarmed civilians; no fewer than 1,800 British and Irish civilians were killed over the course of the conflict, often in extremely violent circumstances.
Quite apart from those killed, about 50,000 people – again, mostly civilians – were injured during the Troubles, many of them to the point of permanent disability. These figures, of course, don’t take into account people who escaped injury but were psychologically traumatised by their experiences and those who suffered intense bereavement as a result of the killing (and mental health problems remain a major issue in Northern Ireland). Nor was the conflict contained within the relatively small area of the six counties, a region not much bigger than Yorkshire; violence consistently bled across the border to the Republic of Ireland and to Britain, where London, Birmingham, Brighton, and Manchester were all bombed with significant loss of civilian life. The sheer number of British soldiers stationed in the North – some 22,000 at the height of the Troubles in the mid-1970s – also meant that families in Britain who had no other connection to Ireland were touched by the conflict in a very real way. In diplomatic terms, the war put a continuous strain on relations between the UK and Ireland, with the North being a constant bone of contention between the British Foreign Office and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Atrocities committed by the British security forces also occasionally stoked popular Anglophobia across the island. At a time when Anglo-Irish relations are warmer than at any other point in history, it is sobering to remember that in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972, an angry mob burned the British embassy in Dublin to the ground.
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Rigid, exclusive and often highly territorial understandings of the past directly fuelled the violence that erupted so catastrophically in 1969 and the polarisation and cultural entrenchment that would mark the next few decades. On the one hand, nationalists across the island, and Republicans in the North in particular, regarded themselves as heirs to a rich and ancient Gaelic culture, whose ancestors had been systemically dispossessed, marginalised, exploited, and murdered by colonists from the neighbouring island. On the other, many Ulster unionists were proud of a history of colonial settlement dating back to the early 17th century, in which industrious, god-fearing Scottish and English Protestants carved out a niche of British civilisation in an otherwise wild and inhospitable corner of Ireland. Importantly, the memory of moments of suffering or victimhood experienced by the tribes that clung to these narratives helped sustain them. For Unionists, there was, and remains, the 1641 Rebellion, the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. Nationalist identity, by contrast, was informed by memories of the Cromwellian conquest, the 1798 Rebellion, the Great Famine of the 1840s, and a hundred other moments of calamity and betrayal.
Yet the modern historical episode that would have by far the greatest influence on the perpetuation of divided identities in Northern Ireland, and across these islands more generally, was the First World War. Well over 200,000 Irishmen, from both political traditions and all walks of life, fought in the war, and somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 of them died as a result of military service. They served in every branch of the British armed forces and often served with great distinction. As military conscription was never enforced in Ireland, moreover, most of the Irishmen who fought in the conflict were wartime volunteers. Their motivations for volunteering were often quite complex, but one major reason that so many Irishmen joined up is that they were strongly encouraged to do so by their political and spiritual leaders, and by the British government. The war was consistently sold to the Irish people as a conflict in which Irish interests were very much at stake, and in which Ireland was a quasi-independent and willing participant. The conflict was also widely interpreted by Irish political leaders, both Nationalist and Unionist, and indeed by the Catholic and Protestant clergy, as a morally righteous endeavour; as a just war. Irrespective of their religious or political backgrounds, many Irishmen who joined the armed forces, at least during the first two years of the war, thus believed they were fighting for Ireland and were regarded as patriots.
And while Unionists and Nationalist soldiers rarely served together, they shared similar experiences of violence, loss and deprivation on the Western Front and elsewhere. Yet the Easter Rising of April 1916, and the social and cultural forces it unleashed, would fundamentally transform the country to which many Irish veterans returned in 1919. Ultimately, the Rising, the subsequent War of Independence, and the partition of the island would ensure that the ways in which the Unionist Community in the North and the Nationalist community across the country engaged with the memory of the First World War were very different indeed.
For the men and women of the Unionist community in Ulster, the memory of the Great War in general and the Battle of the Somme in particular took on an almost sacred significance over the course of the 20th century. The blood sacrifice of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, who sustained such terrible losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, was regarded as having purchased the right of the six counties to remain within the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence. Commemoration of the war is thus not simply an element of Unionist culture, it is absolutely central to way Unionists understand themselves and their place in the world.
In independent Ireland, and among nationalists in Northern Ireland, commemoration of the war was much more complex and usually more muted. In the 20s and 30s, major Armistice Day ceremonies were held in Dublin, Cork and Limerick and poppies were quite commonly worn in the Free State between the wars. Nationalist politicians, including Eamon DeValera, also expressed a certain amount of reserved sympathy for Irishmen who had died while serving in the British Army. Indeed, in terms of housing, employment and pensions, veterans of the Great War were often treated reasonably well by the Irish Free State. And yet there can be no doubt that at a popular and official level, there was much more commemorative emphasis on the rebels of the Easter Rising and the men who served in the IRA during the War of Independence than on the Irishmen who served on the Western Front or at Gallipoli. There was also something of a popular notion that the Irishmen who fought the British Empire at home were more patriotic, and indeed heroic, than those who fought the German or Turkish empires. As the century wore on, the memory of the Great War faded across much of the island, and, outside the Unionist community, service in the British Army was rarely recalled with pride or recognised with esteem.
This division in memory between Unionists and Nationalist was very clearly revealed in 1966, the year in which the fiftieth anniversaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme occurred. Commemorations of these events were highly divisive and fed into the cultural polarisation in Northern Ireland, which directly fuelled the violence that erupted in 1969 and would continue until the mid-1990s. The public Nationalist celebration of the men and women of the Easter Rising in parades and ceremonies across the region was regarded with great suspicion, and indeed contempt, by many Unionists, who focused exclusively on the anniversary of the Somme offensive later in the year. The intense focus on the past in 1966 further polarised communities across Ulster and contributed to the rise in prominence of Ian Paisley, a firebrand preacher whose intransigent anti-papist rhetoric was taken straight from the 17th century. In the Republic, virtually all of the commemorative emphasis that year was on the Easter Rising. The mid-sixties thus marked the emergence of the simplistic and misleading idea that, during the First World War and in its immediate aftermath, Irishmen either fought for the British Empire or they fought against it.
By the 1980s, nationalist memory of the period of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence was not necessarily triumphalist, but it was exclusive and territorial in the sense that there was little room in the popular or official imagination for anyone who did anything other than fight against the British in 1916 or in the years afterwards. The 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the Great War and, importantly, those who had been against all forms of violence, were thus largely forgotten in the Republic. Commemoration of the First World War was also generally regarded as an exclusively British or Irish Unionist tradition. The Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday ceremonies that did occur in the Republic during the 1970s and ‘80s took place behind the closed doors of Protestant churches or schools. In a key indicator of division, the public wearing of poppies, a custom staunchly adhered to by northern Unionists, was virtually unheard of among the rest of the population during this period.
The sense on the part of many nationalists throughout the 1960s and the following decades that commemoration of the First World War was, and should be, the preserve of Unionists and Brits was generally a function of ignorance or indifference rather than antipathy towards those who had fought in the conflict. Any cultural association with the British armed forces was anathema to extremist republicans, however, and in November 1987 the Provisional IRA expressed its contempt for Unionist commemoration with one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. The bombing of the Remembrance Sunday service at the cenotaph in Enniskillen was not simply an attack on unarmed civilians, but a sectarian assault on Unionist culture and the public remembrance of the dead of the two world wars. The bombers took the lives of eleven people, all Protestant and most of them elderly, and the incident was widely condemned as an indefensible massacre. Expressions of sympathy for the victims poured in from across the Britain, Ireland and the wider world, and many within the republican movement began to question their either tacit or active support for the IRA’s armed campaign.
The Remembrance Sunday bombing was a particularly dark episode in the history of the Troubles, but it also arguably marked a turning point in the way in Irish people engage with the memory of the First World War. Over the next number of years, the Farset Youth Project, an initiative that was already bringing disadvantaged teenagers from both sides of the divide in Belfast and from Dublin together to explore early Christian history, began to focus on the Irish experience of the Battle of the Somme. These efforts led to a well-attended cross-community event at the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in 1989 and to the formation of the Somme Association, an organisation committed to honouring the ‘sacrifices of all those from Ireland who served in the War’ in 1990. Attempts to raise awareness about the cross-community experience of the war in the North coincided with a resurgence of interest in the First World War in the Republic and gathered pace in the aftermath of the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994.
The Good Friday Agreement, a historic British-Irish treaty that was years in the making and enshrined some fairly major concessions on both sides, was signed and ratified by voters across Ireland in 1998. In November that year, President Mary McAlesse and Queen Elizabeth II came together to open the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in West-Flanders. The men of both the mostly Nationalist 16th (Irish) Division and the mostly Unionist 36th (Ulster) Division had fought at the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and the location was deemed appropriate for a manifestly all-Ireland site of memory, mourning, and commemoration. The park features a modern re-construction of an ancient Irish round tower, which really stands out in the Belgian countryside, along with several stone tablets inscribed with the words of Irish soldiers who served on the Western Front. Importantly, the park also contains a memorial plaque that expresses unreserved regret, on behalf of both communities, for the years of violence in Northern Ireland.
The creation of the Island of Ireland Peace Park, conceived of by the Unionist activist Glenn Barr and Fine Gael politician, Paddy Harte, was a ground-breaking moment in the history of commemoration on these Islands. It is, of course, notable, however, that the memorial was established in neither Britain nor Ireland but on the ‘neutral’ territory of a former war zone in Belgium. Since 1998, instances of cross-community or Anglo-Irish remembrance of the First World War have become more common in the UK and Ireland and still have the power to impress. The first British state visit to Ireland, which took place in May 2011, was such a success partly because Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese directly and publicly confronted the historically troubled relationship between the islands. When the Queen bowed her head at the Republican memorial in the Garden of Remembrance on the second day of her visit, with the same reverence she shows every November at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, even the most cynical among us were won over.
More recently, in July 2014, a project jointly supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Government and the Glasnevin Trust, culminated in the dedication of a Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. These stone crosses, inlaid with a bronze sword, were originally erected in cemeteries across the globe containing the graves of more than forty British or British Imperial dead of the Great War in the 1920s. The one place in which this tradition was not observed was the Irish Free State, where the political climate was such that iconography associated with the British Empire was unwelcome. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War felt like an appropriate moment to rectify this cultural anomaly and, importantly, to organize an event that would bring Irish and British representatives together to express solidarity with the suffering experienced by their ancestors. One of the most symbolic and moving features of the ceremony was the presence of two colour parties composed respectively of soldiers of the Irish Defence Forces and the Royal Irish Rifles, a British regiment composed largely of recruits from Northern Ireland. The latter were the first British soldiers to be seen in Dublin since the early ‘20s, and the sight of them greeting their counterparts in the Irish Army with broad smiles and handshakes made the event seem all the more powerful and momentous. The choice of Glasnevin for the unveiling of a monument to the Irish dead of the First World War was both deliberate and highly significant. The cemetery is also the final resting place of hundreds of men and women who participated in the Irish struggle for independence and the unveiling of the Cross alongside more manifestly nationalist memorials complicates our understanding of the period of the First World War and the Irish Revolution. The message this juxtaposition of monuments sends is that there was a remarkable degree of overlap between the Irishmen who fought imperial tyranny on the continent and those who fought it at home, and one group does not have to be remembered at the expense of the other.
These events, and dozens of other less official but no less meaningful projects, reflect the emergence of a new, more positive and conciliatory commemorative culture on these islands over the past two decades. Politicians, diplomats, community leaders and ‘ordinary’ men and women from very disparate backgrounds now regularly come together to remember their dead in a way that would have been unthinkable just fifteen years ago. There is a distinct irony in promoting a shared memory of the bloodiest war in British and Irish history to help people come to terms with, and move away from, the violence of the much more recent past. But it’s an irony that anyone with an interest in lasting peace should be prepared to embrace.
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Through its border and its shared history with Ireland, Britain is even more connected to Europe than it sometimes remembers. That same shared, complex, troubled history should remind us of other things. It is not so long since conflict tore lives apart within the borders of this state. Cooperation between neighbours helped resolve it. The European Union helped resolve it. Finally, a recognition that Britain’s history is inextricably intertwined with those of its neighbours, helped resolve it.
As we enter an undeniably new era in the history of North/South and Anglo-Irish relations in the aftermath of the referendum, we should remember that the road to peace in Northern Ireland and positive relations between the UK and the Republic was long and arduous. The relative stability that prevails in the North now simply could not have been achieved without years of effort on the part of political leaders, diplomats and, crucially, without the goodwill of ordinary Irish men and women from both of the ancient traditions and both sides of the border. The process of using more complex historical narratives to help people move away from a conflict that was shaped by understandings of the past will not be jeopardised by the UK’s break with the European Union. Peace in Northern Ireland, and thus within the United Kingdom, is dependent, above all, on people’s desire for peace. That desire remains strong, but the climate of uncertainty that now pervades these islands should remind us that lives are potentially at stake and that lasting peace should never be taken for granted.
Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and co-editor of the Historians for History blog.