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February 7, 2019

Brexit and the past

Opinion

February 7, 2019

How should Brexit be seen against the broad backdrop of British history? Analogies multiply, with the crudest coming from prominent Brexiteer MP Mark Francois who denounced the head of Airbus for writing a letter stressing the negative economic impact for Britain of leaving the EU.

Francois claimed that this was yet one more example of teutonic arrogance, adding pugnaciously, “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.” With this, he tore up the letter in front of the television cameras.

The puerile bombast that accompanied this performance attracted great publicity, as no doubt Francois intended, and derisive commentary was abundant. But Francois has scarcely been alone in making ludicrously exaggerated analogies between Britain leaving the EU and other great crises in British history.

Jacob Rees-Mogg made a classier but equally absurd comparison between Theresa May’s Brexit deal and the Treaty of Le Goulet agreed between King John and Philip II of France n 1200 at time when John was vainly trying to hold on to his lands across the Channel.

Such xenophobic or far-fetched analogies tend to bring into disrepute anybody else trying to see Brexit in the context of British history. Yet there are comparisons to be made with our recent and distant past which illuminate the political terrain in which the battle over relations between Britain and the EU is being fought.

The trouble is, knowledge of events only recently past is depressingly scanty. People may very reasonably say that they have never heard of the Treaty of Le Goulet and are dubious about its relevance. Much more dangerous is the fact that so many Conservative MPs, going by what they say, have little idea what was in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 or why it ended a savage guerrilla war in which some 3,000 people were killed.

The conflict known as the Troubles was only the latest episode in the 400-year-old confrontation between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ulster. Bringing it to an end was the greatest achievement of Tony Blair’s years in office. Yet today Theresa May is cavalierly putting this hard-won peace in jeopardy because she needs the votes of the DUP, seen by Catholics as a sectarian Protestant party, to maintain her parliamentary majority.

The British government has thoughtlessly abandoned the neutrality between nationalists and unionists which was declared by John Major’s government in 1993 and was a necessary precondition for peace talks.

Watching MPs being questioned about the backstop, it soon becomes clear that few of them have much idea of its significance.

The backstop is treated as if it was solely about border checks, or the absence of them, and about the stance of the EU, Irish and British governments on the issue. Conservative MPs and ministers state defiantly that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from the rest of the UK, as if the Good Friday Agreement and everything else to do with the country since 1920 has not treated it as a different political entity.

We have been here before. The crisis in British history which perhaps has the most in common with the turmoil over Brexit is that over the home rule, which convulsed British politics repeatedly between 1880 and 1922. The Conservative Party played the “Orange Card” successfully in order to win elections and thereby ensured that, when the Irish gained effective independence, it was through violence.

The English have the reputation abroad of being obsessed with their own history, but I doubt if this is really the case. Put another way, they consider history as a determining force to be something that happens to other people.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Brexit in the Context of British History’.

Courtesy: Counterpunch.org