24th April 2019
When thinking and writing about Brexit I often recall the wise words of the great historian Conrad Russell.
Russell set about, between the mid-1970s and the early-1990s, re-considering and then revising the matter of what led to the English civil war.
His conclusion was, in effect, that we were asking the wrong questions.
His view was that to explain causes you had to consider first effects.
Here, the passage which I keep remembering is in his The Causes of the English Civil War, the printed edition of his Ford Lectures of 1987-88:
“In investigating causes, the first necessity is to match them with effects, and it therefore seems a logical priority to begin by trying to establish the effects for which causes must be found.
“If the effects are wrongly postulated, the causes will be wrong also.
“If we discuss causes without any investigation of effects, we are simply indulging in unverifiable speculation.”
(Sentences separated out for ease of on-screen reading.)
So what are the “effects” of Brexit which we would need to explain if we are to understand the “causes” of the current predicament.
It would not be enough to explain why there was a referendum in June 2016, as the result was close and could have gone differently.
It would also not be enough to explain why there was a close Leave victory, as that would not explain (by itself) why the UK government then adopted the approach it did, from all other possible approaches.
And it would not be enough to explain why the UK government handled Brexit policy so badly after the referendum, as a great deal also came down to how EU27 responded, and this would need explaining in turn
There would seem to be no one grand cause of Brexit but a complex of different origins, any of which could have been different, and could have ended with different outcomes.
In the years to come, some historians and pundits will posit that whatever outcome we end up was inevitable all along.
(Those historians and pundits currently, however, have not any idea what will happen.)
As one great wit put it: history is a box of tricks we play upon the dead.
Russell himself contended that the “effects” of the English civil war which needed explaining were: the Bishops’ wars, the English defeat, the failure to reach settlement, the failure to dissolve or prorogue parliament, the choice of sides, the failure to negotiate, and the problems of the king’s diminished majesty.
“The removal of any one of these seven things could have prevented the civil war as we know it.”
This was his view, of course, other historians disagree – though few if any serious historians now suggest that there was just one or two big causes of the English civil war.
The task for those of us who are seeking to explain the extraordinary contemporary phenomenon of Brexit is not to get caught up too much in the excitement of daily events, and also to not readily adopt the easy benefits of hindsight.
In other words: the key question is not only about why and how Brexit has unfolded in the way it has, but to also grasp why and how events did not go differently.
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