The historian Robert Saunders tweeted a great thread yesterday about the world view of the Tory Brexiteers. Here it is:
One of the stranger assumptions of the Brexit debate was that we live in an age of permanently low tariffs, guaranteed by a liberal world trading order. It’s indicative of a wider problem in UK politics: the near-total absence of historical & prudential considerations.
When Britain joined the EEC, in 1973, the world looked very different. A liberal trading order based on the Bretton Woods System had collapsed. The world seemed to be breaking up into hostile trading blocs, which, like OPEC, could use their power to devastating effect.
Europe seemed dangerously exposed to Russian power, with the United States retreating into introspection after the horrors of Vietnam and the internal convulsions over Watergate. Harold Wilson told the Cabinet in 1974 that “American leadership had gone”.
Joining the EEC was a response to all three. It bound Britain into a trade bloc that could stand its ground against the superpowers. It gave Britain preferential access to European food supplies & encouraged domestic production. It provided an economic foundation for NATO.
By the 90s, when modern Euroscepticism was incubating, the world had changed. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, the lowering of tariff barriers & abundant food supplies weakened the case for membership as it had been made in the 1970s – and pro-Europeans failed to respond.
But what if those conditions returned? What if trade wars became the new norm? What if cheap food became harder to access, for political, economic or climatic reasons? What if a resurgent Russia threatened Europe’s security? That world seems less alien now than 2 years ago.
History only really teaches one lesson: that the world we live in is contingent, not fixed; that things we take for granted in the present have been different in the past – and will be different again in the future.
States have to balance the needs of the present against future contingencies. The armed forces maintain in times of peace weapons that would only be necessary in the most apocalyptic of wars. We are less good at building contingency into our political and economic thought.
This role used to be played by “conservatism”, injecting the political system with a scepticism of precipitate change to institutions inherited from the past. Yet one of the strangest features of modern British politics is the “strange death of conservatism” on the Right.
The Conservative Party today is not in any meaningful sense “conservative”: its thinking is almost entirely ahistorical, grounded in a universalist creed of marketization that must be applied to all institutions, relationships and organs of civil society.
Ironically, that means it struggles to adapt to “change”, because a contingent world of liberal markets & global trading rules is assumed to be the universal state of humanity. These are not Thatcher’s children; they’re Francis Fukuyama’s. We may all be poorer as a result.
The last bit of course refers to Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man”, in which he argues that the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.
I think this is a really insightful thread. I’ve been trying to figure out for a while what on Earth the attraction of Brexit really is to most Tories. The multimillionaires may be disaster capitalists who are planning to buy up the NHS and other bits of the public sector once it becomes unaffordable after a cliff-edge Brexit, but I’ve been struggling to understand the attraction for the rest of them. I think this explains it.
When Communism collapsed, they saw that borders and trade barriers were coming down, that freedom and prosperity was spreading all over the world, and they thought that the EU had simply become superfluous, or perhaps even had become a hindrance.
However, history doesn’t seem to have ended at all, and it’s looking like the EU is needed more than ever. I wish the Conservatives would try to conserve the relationship with the EU, instead of trying to prepare for an end of history which isn’t happening.