In which a historian finds herself living through a much more dramatic piece of History than she had bargained for.
The European Union took up maybe three minutes of the final lecture in my introductory European history survey course last May. As one aspect of the search for continental peace after the horror of the two world wars, or as a barometer gauging the always-shifting answers to the question “what is Europe?” the EU mattered a lot to my story. But how it actually works day-to-day, its constitution, its laws and regulations…. that would be a snooze, I thought, for me and my students alike.
As for the possibility that something huge was about to happen to the EU, I didn’t take it seriously. The impending referendum on Brexit (British exit from the EU) was coming up in June, but, like the Scottish referendum on independence the year before, it was a pretty sure bet that the sensible British people would opt for the status quo. Did not Edmund Burke praise that nation precisely for its averseness to radical change? So the “Leave” campaign got a brief mention; I spent much more time on the recent election of Sadiq Kahn, the first Muslim mayor of London, about whom my students were treated to something of a fangirl gush.
When classes ended, I headed off for a research trip to London. How fun, I thought, that I could see this Brexit vote up close. In the spare hours when I was not rifling through seventeenth-century documents in the archives, I happily walked around taking pictures of all the advertising on both sides. The “In” signs were especially cheerful. More fun yet for me as a historian was the juicy fight about history itself that was breaking out around Brexit. Each generation argues about the past, and those arguments are inevitably shaped by the politics of the historian’s present. Some pro-Brexit luminaries of the historical profession had started a group called “Historians for Britain.” And that had provoked some others to form “Historians for Britain in Europe,” as well as yet another group with the best name of all, “Historians for History.” What a delight to find, though, that it was not just professional historians who were fighting to create a vision of a past that could support their cause in the present. Two blocks from my rented flat, righty on Ladbroke Grove, I found a passionate debate about history, written in magic markers, right on top of Winston Churchill’s face! I could not wait to show it to my students.
The referendum took a darker turn, though. My first clue came as a NY Times push notification on my iphone. “MP murdered” and a name that I did not know at the time: Jo Cox. But soon Jo Cox was heartbreakingly familiar: Images of her, smiling and spunky; her work with Oxfam, her advocacy for refugees and immigrants. The converted barge on the river Thames where she lived with her husband and two kids. Just a few days after the murder my research took me to the Parliamentary Archives, which are located inside the House of Lords. I spent a long time looking at the makeshift memorials. Candles, flowers, written messages. It was raining. I was crying.
And the man who shot and stabbed Jo Cox? He had been heard to shout “Britain First,” or something along those lines, as he attacked her. Jo Cox was known as a strong supporter of staying in the EU. Was this really about Brexit?
Or to ask another question, what was the Brexit vote, the Brexit debate, really about? Yes, duh, it was about the EU. But was the EU actually worthy of murderous rage? I was confused.
In the days that followed Jo Cox’s murder, and when the news broke that Leave had unthinkably and actually won, I was still asking myself and anyone else I knew what people voted for when they voted for “Leave.” Judging from the leaflet that was pushed through my mail slot the day before the vote (pictured here), they voted for anything and everything under the sun: the Leave campaign promised jobs, safety, prosperity, saving the National Health Service, democracy and in general “taking control.” But I’m not sure the content of those promises mattered that much. Many people voted for Leave in the parts of the country hit the worst by industrial decline, where people cannot feel the benefits of global economic integration and can’t afford to buy any private insurance to cushion them from cuts to the National Health Service. The vote seems not so much a choice for a particular course of action or set of policies but a howl of anger, a demand for change, gambling on an unknown future rather than accepting a miserable present.
Future historians, and indeed myself in future lectures, will make Brexit part of a lot of narratives. It may well figure in a story about the breakup of the United Kingdom, as it has given Scotland new reasons to secede. It could be read as a symptom of rising anti-immigrant nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic. It will probably lead to some creative rethinking of the famously unwritten British constitution, as those who want to stop Brexit from actually happening cast about for ways to define the referendum as illegal, not binding, or subject to veto by Scotland—all of which ideas, whether they persuade anyone or not, will enliven the study of British constitutional history for years to come. Students of democratic institutions will mark it as a watershed moment when the wisdom of democracy was called into question in a leading Western democracy. It is part of a long story about the rise and fall, and rise again, of the nation state as an organizing institution.
For now, I am trying to think about what I have learned as a scholar and a teacher from my summer of Brexit. Here are some answers.
First, Brexit stirred up many feelings, and it made a difference to my understanding of it to feel it, and feel it in real time. The anxiety, rage, and sense of loss on both sides were palpable and contagious. Let’s start with anxiety. I could not sleep the night of the vote. I’ve lain awake other nights since, wondering if the London I know will be here when I come back next summer: my favorite Italian-run cafe, or the little Polish groceries that have sprung up all over London, unappealing at first sight but (as I now know) within which one can find sausages, blintzes, pierogis and brilliant things done with cucumbers. And I am not really directly affected. My friends are worried about their colleagues, their jobs, their neighborhoods, and the falling value of the pound. Younger people who had plans to travel or work for a while in Berlin, Paris, Rome – that door is now shut. England,
this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall….
It could come to feel like being in jail. (That was Shakepeare, by the way)
Even if everything eventually gets settled to everyone’s satisfaction, the wait to find out is agonizing, and each day brings its turn of the screw, some new rumors, more alarming predictions. It is downright tiring to always be that worried, to be always guessing. Someday, when this is told with hindsight, it will be easy to fast-forward through a few months or even years of uncertainty and cut to the chase: here is how it turned out in the end. But you don’t know what it is like to live it day by day until…well, until you live it day by day.
The other feeling is rage. I have already spoken of the vote to Leave as a howl of anger. There was anger on the other side too. Following the vote, I watched English friends who voted for Remain barely able to restrain themselves from spitting on their fellow citizens. There was a palpable desire to see someone punished, from David Cameron who had foolishly called for the referendum to the “stoopid stoopid Little Englanders” (as one friend put it) who voted to Leave. The Brexit vote may have severed Britain from Europe, but it has also severed Britain from itself. “We don’t recognize this country anymore,” was the common refrain on both sides. This seems like the most depressing thing about it.
I’ve also been challenged by the Brexit vote to call on one of my most important skills as a historian, the ability to try to see things from the position of someone who isn’t me. Full disclosure: if I could have voted I would have voted to Remain, my friends voted to Remain, they are angry and I am angry alongside them. But just as I ask my students in European History to try to imagine why someone might vote for the Nazis, I can ask myself why someone would vote for Leave. And I can at least see that Brexit looks different depending on your experience and perspective. Personally, I have loved the ways that the England I know has become more integrated with Europe. I am old enough to remember when salads were served with a white gloop known as “salad cream.” Now I get extra-virgin olive oil at my Sainsbury’s Local. I can take the fast train to Paris or Brussels for the weekend. The British universities where I hang out attract brilliant professors and students from the continent. But my England is basically London, which overwhelmingly voted to remain. What if you lived far away from that, or were too poor to enjoy any of that? And then being told by smug experts of how disastrous it will be to lose these things which the experts get to enjoy but you don’t… well, rage is not so hard to understand. And I sincerely believe this is the strongest case I can make for studying history: that thing that History professors do and try to teach students to do — to understand feelings we don’t share, to recognize that our perspectives are not universal– is the only way to get past rage, and we have to do this not just as teachers and students but as citizens and humans.
The other thing I’ve learned from living through the Brexit vote is how important it is to ask the right question. It has been tempting to say (among those who think Brexit is a disaster) that democracy failed because the people are stupid. But maybe it is not the people, but the question they were asked, that was stupid. “Remain or Leave” was an unclear and even deceptive choice, because “Leave” could mean so many different things. Some imagined that a post-Brexit Britain would have close ties to Europe enabling fairly free trade and travel, much in the way that Norway currently does. Others dreamed of a wall and mass deportations of EU citizens. In fact, no one could possibly predict what a post-Brexit world would look like, because all of the key decisions about trade and migration between Britain and EU members would be made by the EU, not Britain. The simple ‘yes or no’ question asked in the referendum did not reveal the will of the people; it just muddled the debate and made it impossible to know what people really wanted. When it is said that “the people have spoken,” let’s not forget that the people had no control over the question they were asked.
And so, as a teacher, I’ve come away from my summer Brexit experience more determined than ever to teach my students that asking the right question matters even more than giving the right answer. So, to those of you who will find yourselves in my classes: if I ever ask you a question that seems too vague to understand, or ask you to choose between two alternatives that seem equally wrong, don’t try to dutifully answer me. Just tell me it is a bad question. Then tell me why, and tell me what a better question would be. Because that would mean you are learning something. And then I would be learning something too.
Oh, and there’s a final thing I definitely learned. I will have to rewrite that final lecture next year. Three minutes on the EU is just not enough.
Professor Rachel Weil is a specialist in early modern English History. She will offer History 1511 (the Making of Modern Europe) again in the Spring of 2017. She will be talking about Britain, Scotland, and Europe — the deep background to Brexit — in her course on Britain in the Eighteenth Century (History 3050) this fall.
Rachel Weil is the author of A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III’s England (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History)