The cave paintings of Brexit

20th April 2019

I have an inexpert fancy about our prehistoric ancestors.

It is about cave paintings.

These wonderful surviving works deep in caves, painted no doubt by firelight, are often held to be significant and representative: a key to understanding the prehistoric mind.

Perhaps they are.

But I cannot help thinking that there were probably paintings everywhere – on cliffs, on boulders, on trees, on every available surface.

It is just that the ones in the caves are the ones which happened to survive to our day.

All the others were washed off, or otherwise lost.

And in their time, the sort of person who went deep underground to paint by firelight was probably as unrepresentative as an eccentric person of our own day who would go off and do the same.

Similarly, one suspects early civilizations were not obsessed by pottery, no matter how many vases and bowls survive.

In other words: one should try not be biased by available sources.


Anyone writing about Brexit encounters the problem of the lack of reliable information from the usual sources.

The Westminster lobby – where there are many fine journalists – has only been as good as the information available to Westminster politicians and Whitehall briefers.

And because much of the process to date has been driven by Brussels, there has not been that much information available to the lobby to report.

Government press offices have been, in my view, of little use and the number of genuinely helpful Brexit documents published by Whitehall can be counted on one’s fingers.

And so the two usual sources of information for those following British politics – the political press and the government – have been relatively dry.

A Brexit historian with access only to the front parts of UK newspapers and to government publications would be like the classical historian convinced that the Romans were pre-occupied with crockery.


But there has been a great deal of useful detailed information published about Brexit, it has just not come from the traditional sources for British politics.

The European Union has published (in English!) a comprehensive set of reliable documents.

The Brussels correspondents of the British press have all been far more instructive to follow than their Westminster colleagues.

Irish journalists have given us brilliant insights into the issues which have affected and now stalled the Brexit process.

Parliamentary committees have been far more informative – especially in publishing evidence and in their witness sessions – than any front benchers, and all this is available on the parliamentary websites.

Similar praise can be made of the House of Commons library and their in-depth, authoritative and impartial reports on Brexit matters.

Expert bodies such as the Institute for Government and the Centre for European Reform have been magnificent in producing detailed commentary and reports.

And on social media, a host of genuine experts – on trade, on parliaments, on the EU, on the civil service – have emerged to inform and explain in ways which more established newspaper pundits would not be able to do so.

Brexit is a complex and many ways novel phenomenon.

And so the sources of good information have been also been (in many ways) new.

There is good information out there, just not in the traditional places.


Thank you for reading me on this new(ish) blog.

And if you want to subscribe, there is subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile). I expect to be blogging here more often than being on Twitter for a while.

Comments are welcome but pre-moderated, and they will not be published if irksome.

19 thoughts on “The cave paintings of Brexit”

  1. Another useful contribution/clarification, thank you. Given the diversity of sources you recommend, one must be careful to distinguish between channels and sources. And within the latter, it is difficult to distinguish between evidence and opinion. A veritable mental minefield if ever there was one!

  2. Fascinating list of resources – it begs the question, why are our own journalists not using these as the basis of their own media reporting?
    What would your best guess be on this…?

  3. I agree with Martin.
    There are very well informed contributors on Twitter, such as those currently and formerly involved with the EU and UK Gov, as well as superb analysts of the ramifications of that information, not least yourself, DAG.

    Quibble: what proportion of archaeologists & historians actually do believe ancient civilizations were obsessed with pottery? My understanding has been that latter-day academics appreciate pottery because the shards last indefinitely and the evolution of ceramic style is of great assistance in dating the sites on which they are found and in mapping cultural exchanges across the ancient world.

    I *love* the notions that ‘cave paintings’ were in fact everywhere but have only survived in caves. I believe some refer to them as ‘rock paintings’ (some aboriginal rock art has survived outside caves). On the other hand, art has had a role in religion and ceremony which until recent times has seen its highest expression confined to specific spiritually significant sites: the Sistine chapel, triptychs etc.
    It may be that there was *another* art which was lost: Egyptian funerary art and texts are perhaps very different to the now lost adornment of, say, palaces or private homes. Perhaps early civilisation too had a variety of styles of which only the ritualistic ‘cave church’ style has been well preserved.
    Er, yeah, um, meanwhile back to Brexit…

    1. “Quibble: what proportion of archaeologists & historians actually do believe ancient civilizations were obsessed with pottery?”

      None outside my playful imagination, I expect.

  4. You watched Gormley’s recent documentary on the origins of art to then? I loved the bit the the French guy showing how hand impressions were spat onto walls. It is fascinating the efforts that some people have gone to in their research.

    I’m reading ‘The Value of Everything’ at the moment and I am struck by the efforts that the UK Government seem to be going to to perpetuate the depiction of the EU as a ‘taker’ and not a ‘maker’. I wonder whether this is because there is more fear in some Governments that the EU often creates more value than they do themselves is beginning to dawn. Perhaps that explains the paucity (or lack of use) of quality information from ‘local’ sources.

  5. I enjoy your blogs. The more you write about – the more I become aware.

    Thank you. Write as much as you like. I like them.


  6. Totally agree that the ones in caves are the ones that survived, however give the artists credit for noticing this fact? Also to ponder, if they were living in the caves they could spent longer working on them, but, also, did the annoying kids run around smudging them?

  7. The rise in visibility of authoritative, genuinely informed online commentators (among which I would include yourself) has been one of three significant positives of the Leave vote for me so far, (along with the emergence of a genuine and vocal British europhile movement to counterbalance the historical tone of the national conversation, and Marina Hyde’s peerless commentaries). Indeed I think it’s forced some of the lobby-set to up their online game considerably over the last three years.

  8. There has been one (at least) catastrophic failure within the British polity. A complete failure to understand an entity we have been a part of for almost half a century, namely, the EU.

    It is a complex structure and some of its processes are almost unfathomable to all but a few experts. But Brussels publishes more information about what does than almost any organisation I have ever researched – and it is all public. So this inability to understand what we are dealing with, almost three years post the referendum is inexcusable, it is laziness personified.

    I have a modicum of knowledge concerning the beast that is the EU and it was possible for me to watch May’s Mansion house speech and laugh at the sheer naivety of it her steadfast belief that she could get all that she set out in the speech when to me, it was clear that the only realistic option if she was serious about leaving everything, was no deal.

    It was then, and it is now, and no amount of talking, discussing, believing in unicorns or fairies is going to change that – or we can ”stay in” some or all of it, but we never could do both, and no amount of anything is going to change that.

    Three years post the referendum and the British polity still doesn’t even know that – dear me – how far our fall has been!

    1. A follow-up to Mr Land’s contribution, if I may. The point about complexity is crucial. In my view such a degree of complexity is absolutely inevitable in the running of a dynamic organization of 28 nation states members. Each state is different from any other in very important ways, and the EU rules and procedures must try and respect those differences yet treat all members fairly. That those who are running the EU have managed to perform such a complex job of political and economic management, and with commendable transparency, is almost incredible.

  9. It’s interesting to question what future historians might make of Brexit.

    However maybe the more interesting question is whether there will be future historians to analyse the madness of Brexit or whether the consequences of the greater madness of how we disrespect our planet will mean there are no future historians.

    What a time to be alive!

  10. For me, the big learning experience of brexit has been how channelised and partitioned our information sources and news analysis has become. Also how opaque the influences on it are.

    Perhaps, probably, it has always been so and my naïvety led me to ignore it, but it’s a valuable lesson.

  11. This was a really thoughtful and wise piece of contextualization. Over the last couple of years I’ve abandoned broadcast media altogether and ever more frequently been reading individuals and following up links on Twitter (guess how I found you!). The subject is simply so complex and with so many interdependent factors involved that it seems to me that evolving an active ‘compound eye’ approach of one’s own in this way is not only novel but necessary. You have now added another lens to this array and I thank you for it David.

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