A Historian’s View of Brexit

Transpartisan Note #119

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

David Edgerton (@DEHEdgerton), a professor of history at Kings College London and the author, most recently, of “The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History” tells an arresting story of the “British nation” as  a post WWII construct that began to disappear during the 1970s and 80s.

In a recent N.Y. Times op-ed, “Boris Johnson Might Break Up the U.K. That’s a Good Thing,” Mr. Edgerton suggests that “it’s time to let the fantasy of the ‘British nation’ die”, writing:

“The idea of breaking up the union isn’t quite as outrageous as it might seem. The ‘United Kingdom’ is neither ancient nor stable. Before 1945, ‘national’ Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English identities were for many not local varieties of national Britishness but part of something much bigger: an imperial identity.

“British World War II propaganda explained that the United Kingdom was just one equal element of a British Commonwealth of Nations that, along with India and the colonies, made up ‘the British Empire.’ It was the empire that fought the war, not the United Kingdom. Soldiers died for king and country” — but that country had no name. No one died for ‘the United Kingdom.’ 

“After 1945, ‘Britain’ — a national United Kingdom — was one of many post-imperial constructions that emerged from the ashes of the British Empire. From then into the 1970s, the United Kingdom existed as a coherent economic, political and ideological unit, distinct from the rest of the world. There was a national British economy, a national British Army and a national British politics dominated by two national, unionist parties. It was a brief period of British nationhood. In fact, it was the only one. This national United Kingdom was broken up economically starting in the 1970s by the closely related processes of globalization and deepening economic integration with Europe.”

To us at The Transpartisan Review, we see the Order/Freedom – Left/Right Matrix creating a way to account for the powerful transitional/trans-national forces rocking the British Isles—and every other nation of the world. Pundits were surprised when working class Labor and more affluent Conservative party members seemed to vote against their personal economic self-interest in the 2016 Brexit Referendum to pull Great Britain out of the European Union.  The spectacle deepened as former Labor and Conservative prime ministers broke with their parties to endorse “remain” candidates of all stripes in the 2019 General Election.

Unpredicted strange-bedfellow votes brought down two Conservative prime ministers and, as in many other countries, a media-master entertainer arrived at the seat of “power” (if sitting in the front seat of a runaway train can be called the seat of power).  Boris Johnson, the consummate actor that he is, then proceeded to summarily expel twenty-one (some high profile) members from his Conservative party.  All this to keep the “extreme right” (pundit talk)  from driving the country off other rails.

We think the Transpartisan Matrix offers an additional way to look at the forces loose in the land and the way we are relating to them. Do you see the Matrix in these events?

(Image by ChiralJon and licensed CC BY 2.0.)

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