Chris Johns: History proves both peace and prosperity at stake in Brexit
Europe’s default destination is war, unless sensible people take a a detour
‘If Brexit-type forces take hold on the Continent then we really are taking risks with peace’ Image: iStock
Nigel Farage: part of a ‘tribe of rich but uneducated Englishmen’ Photograph: Reuters
Some historians suggest that an early term for “Europe” was “Christendom”. Politics, religion and economics have long been entwined, often leading to violent conflict. By by my count, Germany and France have had 17 wars since Columbus stumbled upon a home for those seeking to escape all things European. Perhaps the Genoan explorer can be thought of as providing an early example of Brexit-type desires to leave Europe: “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World”. Not the sort of thing Ukip founder Nigel Farage is heard uttering: his tribe of rich but uneducated Englishmen (a key Brexit-voting demographic) is not prone to elegantly constructed prose. But they would probably have at least a dim understanding of what Columbus meant by those words.
Early Christendom’s rows over the dating of Easter presaged a lot of tortured debate within Europe about, well, just about anything. At the very first Ecumenical Council in 325AD the clergy and other learned types met at Nicea in a kind of precursor to modern day EU summits. It’s not recorded, as far as I can tell, whether the priests and bishops had to pull any all-nighters. Probably not would be my guess.
Easter was just one of several big topics on the council’s agenda but it is mostly the only one that is still taught in schools today. There was some agreement: for example, Easter should never fall towards the beginning of the Jewish Passover. There then followed a classic row, one driven by whether or not you had an affinity for the old-style lunar calendar or the more modern, and much more efficient, solar calendar. The council’s communiqué determined that Easter falls on the first Sunday following the full moon following the spring equinox; this explains the 35-day span for its potential date.
Another foretaste of similar, much later summitry, came a long time afterwards – the unintended and unanticipated consequences of the big decisions. By the mid-13th century, Franciscan friar Roger Bacon noticed that the calendar wasn’t quite right and that one consequence was that Easter had shifted nine unintended days forward.
Hacks and charlatans
Bacon was an expert, one who initially didn’t attract much attention. Hacks and charlatans were much more fun to listen to than careful scholars. Bacon had an intellectual swipe at contemporaries Alexander of Hales and Albertus Magnus: a pair that remind me today of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. If Rupert Murdoch or the Barclay brothers had existed back then I suspect those two would have been newspaper columnists with all the intellectual depth – expertise – that goes with that role (all irony intended).
Bacon was, of course, ultimately proved to be correct. But it did take a while and did, it is thought, involve a period of house arrest or imprisonment. Today we remember his expertise but have to research the names of the hacks. So it will prove with Brexit.
The similarity between Brexit and America’s prohibitionists is this: inward-looking, social conservatives scared to death by modernity, looking forward via a vision of a mythical past
The reason Europe exists in its present form is because its founders understood the politics-religion-economics nexus. They also knew a lot about history, where that nexus always leads unless a conscious detour is taken. Historically, Europe’s default destination is war, unless sensible people take a such a detour. As we head into the latest potential for disaster – also known as the French presidential elections – it is important to understand that if Brexit-type forces take hold on the Continent then we really are taking risks with peace, not just prosperity.
Proper commentators are drawing on history to reflect on Brexit. And not just Europe’s predilection for bloody violence as the best way to resolve disagreements. One (anonymous) blogger recently drew a brilliant parallel between Brexit and America’s flirtation with prohibition.
The drive to ban booze came initially from rural and small-town people who were growing uneasy about the switch from farming to industry and the growth of cities at the expense of the country. Immigrants were widely viewed by such people as threats to the American way of life. Social change – indeed, change of any kind – was feared by the prohibitionists. The banning of booze became a device to express reluctance to change: a cry to “stop the world, I want to get off”. Just like voting to leave the EU.
As with Brexit, no one demographic or factor explains everything. Some socialists wanted to ban drinking because the workers would then wake from their stupors and overthrow capitalism.
But the essence of the story, the similarity between Brexit and America’s prohibitionists is this: inward-looking, social conservatives scared to death by modernity, looking forward via a vision of a mythical past.
US president Woodrow Wilson tried to stop all this.
“Those miserable hypocrites in the House and Senate . . . many with their cellars stocked with liquors and not believing in prohibition at all”.
He could easily have been talking about modern British politicians voting for article 50 after having voted to Remain in the referendum.
Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster. The unintended consequences are now legendary: the rise of the Mafia and devastated fiscal regimes being the two of many we all know about. As US cultural critic H L Mencken observed, the only good outcome of prohibition was the complete refutation of all arguments made in its favour.
The people who will be most affected by the refutation of the Brexiteer’s arguments do not include the Johnsons, Goves or Foxes of this world. But history is clear: it might take a while but it isn’t going to be pretty.