I haven’t blogged much about Brexit, partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because there seemed to be little I could say that had not already been said. Sure, I could have poured scorn upon the assorted narcissists, neo-nazis, and nasties who conned the country into this disaster. I could have reflected upon the irony that David Cameron—for whom an insinuation of a lack of patriotism is an easy, cheap hit upon a man who dares to not like the medieval hangover that is the monarchy—will doubtless be wearing a proper suit and doing up his tie when he sings the national anthem of the United Kingdom for the last time, as that very union that he hung out to dry in order to mop up a few votes from UKIP is dissolved. I could have ruminated upon the extraordinary duplicity and ego of Boris Johnson—that Brexiter who had us all running in fear from 80 million Turks, yet who not that long ago was ardently advocating their joining the EU, and to whom the achievement of that expansion, far from being a reincarnation of Third Reich or Napoleonic domination as he more recently claimed, would be a glorious unification of the East and West Roman Empires. Or, perhaps, I could have dallied a little over the backstabbing Michael Gove, whose impersonation of a human being is quite passable on good days, but who appears to have skipped Basic Human Interactions 101 (as well as instruction in simple co-ordinative feats such as drinking a glass of water or clapping), making him stunningly blind to the fact that the double-crossing of a double-crosser is not usually seen to cancel itself out. I might even, if I had the stomach, have pondered a little upon the human pile of excrement that is the loathsome Nigel Farage, that neo-fascist schoolboy barely grown up, spinning his campaign of hatred and racism for years on end only, upon achieving his aim, to up and run as fast as he can when he realizes the scale of the clusterfuck that he has unleashed upon the country.
But I shan’t waste my time with this hideous brigade of liars and fantasists, mainly because I can’t spell parallepsis. Instead I shall offer one slight observation which I believe is relatively novel, and I haven’t seen anywhere else: that June 23rd was the day that Whig history ate itself, and that if nothing else good can be rescued from this unnecessary and unworkable mess, it is at least this.
The Whig interpretation of history is a historiographic stance, an interpretation of British history, that presents the events that have transpired on this particular lump of rock as consisting of a slow and incremental progress towards better governance and greater liberty. It is a deeply ingrained narrative, one which dominates our schooling and our public discourse, and one that is utterly, utterly wrong.
Whig history starts at 1066—the last undeniable major upheaval—and claims that, from that point onwards, we have, in a good conservative fashion, inched our way bit by bit towards our (apparent) current glory. All other upheavals are minimized or ignored: what schoolboy learns of the Anarchy, the twenty year civil war between Henry I’s only legitimate child and her usurping cousin? The Barons’ Wars and the Peasants Revolt are footnoted, the stunning rejection of Rome by a previously devout Catholic (“Defender of the Faith” does not refer, as the idiotic Prince Charles seems to think, to the Church of England—it was a title granted by the Pope to Henry VIII for a theological tract opposing the Reformation and upholding Rome) gets reduced to the ins and outs of his marital bed and a money-grab for monastic gold. The subsequent bloody conflicts are largely smoothed away: the violent re-entrenchment of Catholicism under Mary is presented hindsightedly as guaranteed to fail, despite the fact that in her five years of rule she was highly successful in her progress towards the restoration of the faith, and that it was only the fact that she bore no children and the extraordinary coincidence that her right-hand man—Archbishop Reginald Pole—died the same day as her that stopped her project in its tracks. Similarly written out as an aberration is the interregnum: necessarily Cromwell is portrayed as a hideous maniac (who hears of the Putney Debates?) and the Restoration of the monarchy is a glorious (and inevitable) return of the proper way of things. The 1688 Dutch invasion and overthrow of the King is presented as a invited takeover of power, purely on the grounds that some quislings in Parliament were in cahoots with it. England has been a kingdom, a kingdom within a union, a republic, even a papal fief. The Magna Carta was not a progressive constitutional reform, it was a peace treaty in a civil war (and one that was reneged upon almost as soon as the ink was dry upon it), the Great Reform Act was not a considered movement towards more representative democracy, it was forced by radical uprising—who hears of the Peterloo Massacre? Women’s suffrage was, similarly, forced upon a previously wholly unwilling government in the aftermath of the First World War.
Whig history takes the anarchic, radical, violent history of this country and smooths it away, soothingly telling us that England, and then the UK, is stable, it is well-behaved. History moves slowly and gently, and always progressively. As such, this interpretation is the tool of conservatism: it says that the British way is the slow, gradual way. Not for us revolutions and uprisings, we are the tortoise to the hare of radicalism. And it is still used: Michael Gove, when he was education secretary and had yet to discover a taste for sharp knives, rewrote the history syllabus expressly to have it taught in chronological order, with a clear “narrative of British progress.” I am not asserting active conspiracy here, of course: simply that those who run the country tend to have come up through a schooling which promotes this view, they find it meshes nicely with their political aims, and so it becomes convenient to believe it and to promote it yet further.
But, finally, their commitment to this view is what has caused them to come unstuck. Why did David Cameron take such a wildly irresponsible gamble on the future of the country? Because he never believed that we did this kind of thing. Why did Boris Johnson put all his pro-European ardour aside to campaign for Out? Because he wanted Cameron destabilized and unseated, and it never occurred to him that we might actually do what he was campaigning for. Why did none of the fuckers have a fucking plan: the Brexiters for what they purportedly wanted to happen, or the government because any responsible regime plans for all foreseeable circumstances? Because none of them thought it would happen, because those kind of things don’t happen here. Because they bought their own fork-tongued narrative of history, sat complacently upon it, and have now been bitten in the arse. The only leaders who really considered Brexit a possibility are the true bigots and maniacs—à la Farage— who have turned tail and run from the catastrophic consequences. Even they were Whigs to a certain extent: they could not believe that this would be catastrophic. Michael Gove, another True Believer, famously derided the massed ranks of “experts” who warned of disaster: how could there be? We don’t do disaster. They believed that change, being slow and gradual, could simply be reeled back: that we could easily turn the clock back a hundred years or so to Empire, glory, and dark people in their proper place. Finding that is not the case, they have scarpered.
So, welcome to Brexit Britain. We are economically screwed, probably on our way to constitutional collapse, a rainy little nowhere island viewed by the rest of the world with suspicion and derision. But at least we won’t have to put up with this silly, self-justifying narrative of establishment conservatism. A thin sliver of hope lies in the fact that maybe, just maybe, having put this nonsense aside, we may find room for the true, progressive, leftist radicalism that will be essential to preventing the poorest and worst off in society—those who have been fucked by thirty years of neo-liberal economics and were conned into believing that their destitution was the fault of foreign powers and not successive callous and indifferent UK governments—from suffering yet further as the fallout of this monstrously deceitful campaign continues.