I was recently asked to speak about the EU referendum on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s breakfast show, and consider how historians will talk about ‘Brexit’ 30 or 40 years from now. Clearly, no-one has a crystal ball, let alone historians who dedicate more of their time to the past than the future. Considering that we tend to base our arguments on available evidence, it is impossible to predict how future historians will look back on the events of the past week. It will ultimately depend on what happens in the next few months, years, and possibly decades. It seems that the only certainty from the referendum result is uncertainty.
However, based on what has been happening over the past few weeks, I would imagine that future historians will examine the divisions brought forth by the referendum. The country is clearly at odds with itself not only politically (as evidenced by the turmoil that both major parties find themselves in, the real possibilities of Scottish independence), but socially and culturally. And there is every indication a decision to ‘Remain’ would had the same effect. We have a clear generational divide, echoing the 1960s where baby boomers of the post-war era rejected the ‘old politics’ and sought a more egalitarian society. Today, younger people seem to be increasingly disillusioned with the world they are inheriting from their elders, and feel let down by the Brexit vote. There are have been indications that the more highly and less educated were also on opposing sides of the debate, reviving class divisions that fly in the face of the ‘classless’ society or false Conservative slogans of ‘One Nation’ and ‘we’re all in this together.’
However, I think this referendum has been about much more than this. The battle over identity, and what it means to be British has been at the heart of the debate. Many ‘Leavers’ drew on ideas of a glorious past when Britannia ruled the waves, and images of Empire were used to highlight the future possibilities of a UK without the shackles of Europe. I am sure that future historians will want to investigate why so many Britons felt that their very identity was threatened by EU membership, and why simplistic and often misleading slogans like ‘Take Back Control’ worked so effectively for an already independent and sovereign nation. I suspect – given the very real dramatic consequences of Brexit that seem to be unravelling – that the EU has been the fall guy for problems of our own making, such as six years of austerity, privatization and lack of spending on public services, combined with high levels immigration, which have left many people feeling forgotten and disenfranchised. The referendum gave people’s votes more legitimacy, the choice was more simple, and the outcome far more tangible than in a general election. However, while this was seemingly more democratic – with many people in England believing that the referendum results reflect their wishes – others (in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, among many others) feel that they are being dragged out of the EU kicking and screaming. How these divisions will be healed and when, is impossible to predict.
Looking back at the referendum in 30 or 40 years will allow for much more perspective than we are allowed right now, as tensions are still so high. I am fairly certain however that many of my colleagues of the future – and most probably the young people of today who will write tomorrow’s history books – will consider Brexit within the bigger picture. Right-wing nationalist movements, from the French National Front, Italy’s Lega Nord, Greece’s Golden Dawn and others in Denmark and the Netherlands, not to mention Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, have all welcomed Brexit, a particularly worrying trend which echoes the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s and the rise of Fascism. This is alongside the backdrop of the refugee crisis which has seen millions across the Middle East and Africa flee from war and starvation at huge cost. We have seen a rise in the number of racial and xenophobic crimes in the UK in the wake of Brexit, with parts of our society seemingly liberated to attack others on the basis of race. The referendum result does suggest the nation is more inclined to put up barriers rather than a helping hand. However, if history has an important function, it is to not let us not forget the images of dead bodies washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean over the last year, nor the difficulties faced by immigrants to the UK during the 1950s and 1960s who were invited to help rebuild the country after WWII, or the way cultures all around the world have enriched Britain economically, culturally and socially. For this reason, I am fairly certain that Nigel Farage’s horrific, racist and insensitive ‘Breaking Point’ poster will come back to haunt him, and rightly so.