April 24, 2019

The Inscrutability of Brexit

“In Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys, a charismatic history teacher at a state school in 1980s northern England attempts to tutor students for the entry exams of Oxford and Cambridge. “How do you define history?” one student gets asked in a mock interview. “How do I define history? It’s just one bloody thing after another,” the student replies.

Since the June 2016 referendum in favor of ending the UK’s membership of the European Union, analyzing Brexit’s causes has become something of a public pastime. Approaches tend to fall into one of two categories: The first one understands Brexit as the result of economic forces, looking back at the 2008 financial crisis and its continuing impact, as well as at the austerity policies of Conservative governments from 2010 onwards, which left many people with worse-paying and less secure jobs. In this story, the EU becomes a scapegoat for the sins of domestic politics. The second approach focuses on issues of identity: A resurgence of nationalism and a nostalgic yearning for a lost, glorious past—a rejection of the political elite and the educated classes by those who feel socially and politically disenfranchised, or a flailing from a former Great Power still coming to terms with its decline.

But as much truth as these narratives contain, they ignore a central aspect of the current mess: the accidental nature of many of its most crucial turning points. The current impasse in British parliament over the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the fact that a mere two months from the date the UK is set to leave, the nature of the exit remains unknown, are easy to blame on individual politicians. But they’re also a stark reminder of just how contingent history can sometimes be. Alan Bennet’s irreverent student wasn’t wholly wrong.”

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