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What will historians think when they look at us? | UK News



In 1973, when Britain joined the then EEC, it was promised to be the beginning of an exciting future.

Memories of the imperial project were still fresh, but the world had changed around us. The argument was that the empire was dead but this would be the new alliance to replace it.

Does Brexit mean another great change? And if so, what will historians say about this period in history?

It’s certainly a period for tearing up all the rule books – there’s no precedent for much of what is going on in parliament.

Only one in 16 respondents to a survey said they did not have a Brexit identity
Most referendums offer a chance to go forward but 2016 offered a chance to go back

Earlier this month, Theresa May suffered the greatest loss in parliament since Ramsay Macdonald lost by 166 votes in 1924. And yet, against all precedent and convention, she has not resigned.

The speaker has acted independently of advice.

And there seems at present to be no clear parliamentary majority for any option – whether no deal, May’s deal, a second referendum or revoking Article 50 – or even something else.

No one knows where we go from here, but something has to change.

Most referendums offer a chance to change, to go forward, whether they are the Irish abortion referendum, Scottish independence, or even the referendum on proportional representation. The referendum in 2016 was unique in holding out the option of going back to the past, or at least a version of it. But much of the vision of the past offered was caught up in historical myth-making about Britain in the 19th and 20th century, about the greatness of the empire and the generosity of the Blitz – as well as underplaying the country’s reliance on immigrant workers from the 18th century onwards.

Swindon's magic roundabout is like Brexit - chaotic, and you might just go round in circles

Brexit Crisis: A Divided Country

The UK is not the only country in which the anti-vote has been cast in the context of an undercurrent of disillusionment and a vision that the past was better.

The elections of Donald Trump in America and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil can be seen as examples of the anti-vote. When the system isn’t working, anything different can seem like a solution. And the gilet jaune movement in France has grown from popular disquiet about a tax system seen as unfair to a movement with real power and influence.

A milkman delivering milk in a London street devastated during a German bombing raid. Firemen are dampening down the ruins behind him
People think of the Blitz as a time of camaraderie

What will historians say about this period of history? That the campaign harnessed many reasons for discontent – from poverty and lack of opportunity to a feeling of distance from decision making, the pain and anger of being left behind as other parts of the country gained in prosperity, the decline of industry, fear of immigrants and a dislike of the pace of modern life. It was a protest vote against all of these things.

And it relied on many versions of what the past was – the empire as great, rather than a failing, oppressive project; the Blitz as a time of camaraderie.

The lessons we will learn from this period: that politicians in Westminster should never underestimate the power of dreams of the past.

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