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“We must recapture that spirit of common purpose.” Theresa May’s call to action at the Conservative Party Conference was both part of a powerful reiteration of her speech when she entered Number 10 in 2016, and yet also a reminder of the contingent. In leading, politicians can call on the people, but it is the latter who deliver — or not.

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Thus to consider the future of the United Kingdom is inherently a tentative process. That is not due to Brexit. It has simply been accentuated by the process, albeit greatly so. Far from Brexit, for example, causing the break-up of the UK, that was already in prospect with the rise of the SNP in Scotland and, earlier and very differently, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The challenging rise of left-wing elements committed to their vision of direct action was already apparent in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the potential combination of the Left with Russian meddling in British politics scarcely had to wait for Jeremy Corbyn: the Soviets armed the IRA and encouraged the National Union of Mineworkers. So also with economic and financial problems. These are not made less serious because they have happened before, but that is an important background when considering the present situation.

One approach is to look at politics as cyclical. This would see Margaret Thatcher overcoming a set of problems that now threaten to recur, although it is not clear whether they can be so successfully surmounted anew. Indeed, Theresa May provided a sense of this with her references to the two world wars, and to the unity seen then, a unity that she presented as challenged by the departure of Labour from the principles of its past.

An alternative is to note important continuities while also seeing the unpredictabilities of very different contexts. At the global level, that certainly seems pertinent. There were anxieties in the past about economic developments in East Asia, large-scale migration, and environmental change, but not on the scale of the present. Each of those affects the future character of the UK but with the course of development set from outside. It would be bizarre, with the world population heading for unprecedented numbers, to argue that this will not have an impact on Britain.

These and other points serve as reminders that there is much at stake other than Brexit, a point that many commentators seem to find difficult to credit. Indeed, there is an element of a search for “agency” in the focus on Brexit. Faced with a range of problems, it is comforting to believe that if only the outcome was Brexit, or if only Remain, then the situation would be much better and problems would recede. This approach is encouraged by the short-termism that characterises much of the debate, on both sides. It is understandable because projections, whether reliable or not, tend to be, or to appear, more reliable if focused on the short term, and also because most people live in the short term: they are concerned with the price of bread today, and not in two years’ time. The noise of imminence, the predictions for next year, drown out longer-term considerations, and help drive the politics of the present.
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Lawrence James
November 10th, 2018
4:11 PM
This article is predicated on the flimsy assumption that a third of the electorate is somehow the authentic voice of the whole nation. It is not. Another equally questionable assumption is that historians are out of touch - they don't 'get out much' whatever that they may mean. We do. We also understand more about the past which has shaped the modern world and the nature of relations between nations. But such knowledge based upon study does count for anything in the Brexiteer mind, which is hostile to all experts, the more so when they contradict visceral passions.

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