15th May 2021
One of the more refreshing shifts in historiography was when historians turned from ‘the English civil war’ to ‘the war of the three kingdoms’ – acknowledging that the conflicts of the mid-1600s were more to do with the politics and conflicts of Scotland and Ireland than a purely English affair.
Future historians looking at the age of Brexit may similarly have to see how Scotland and Ireland were causes of immense political instability and potential constitutional crisis.
For the referendum we all know about – and the one we are all preoccupied about – may for historians seem to be just the first of three.
And those historians may group together the 2016 Brexit referendum with a yet-to-come Scottish independence referendum and border poll in (Northern) Ireland.
It will be the fall-out of the three referendums taken together which will be the end and beginning of a chapter in our constitutional and political history.
This is not to predict the outcome of those referendums – or the outcome of what would then (if anything) that follows those referendums.
In this time of unwelcome and unexpected political surprises, few can be confident in forecasting what things will happen next.
But the 2016 referendum may be seen as just one move of a gear in something more complex – the recasting of the state of the United Kingdom.
The one thing which may be certain is that the (perceived) mandate of any referendum result now has a greater charge than before.
Brexit was carried through at speed and with no real planning in the face of opposition (and of reality) because of the purchase of a referendum result.
It is therefore difficult to deny, if either or both of the upcoming referendums (if they happen) vote for change, that such a change can be opposed on the basis of a higher priority for the will of parliament.
We may find that one cannot pick and choose the ‘will of the people’ – if there are to be referendums, then the expectation is now (more than before) that the results will be implemented.
But we also may find that the experience of Brexit will turn people against voting for further drastic changes – that the next referendums are reactionary rather than radical in their nature.
Of course: there will be those historians – like there are for the civil wars – who will say, with hindsight, that the outcome was inevitable all along.
Those of us here at the time, however, can only seen uncertainty and multiple contingencies.