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Brexit - What Next? The Utility Of A Historical Assessment?

20/10/2016 13:55

During a recent opportunity to talk to the University of Exeter's History and Politics societies I posed the question, are we all sick of talking about Brexit? The answer that came back was a firm: no. Given I was about to talk about the utility of historical understanding for adding context to Brexit, that was somewhat reassuring. So can an understanding of history allow us to predict what might happen next in terms of Brexit? Well, no, history does not allow us to predict but it does allow us to consider a number of options and scenarios that might happen, based upon what we know about the past. We did, after all, get here to today somehow and that can have utility in looking forward.

This week has seen one attempt to future engineer what Brexit might look like, at least in terms of football management simulation. In the words of Miles Jacobson, Studio Director of Sports Interactive, 'The first option for the game was to have just one scenario and that would be it, Brexit done, but it's not possible to come out with one outcome and it won't be until all the negotiations are done. As a result we've decided to go down another route, and have included every possible outcome'. This is exactly the type of scenario planning that those charged with negotiating and implementing Brexit need to be doing and while using a computer game engine stuffed full of highly accurate statistics is very much a quantitative approach to problem solving so beloved by my social scientist colleagues, I am, alas, a historian and in order to understand Brexit and its implications I naturally look to the past to two occasions when Britain has been excluded from Europe before.

The cause of previous British political and economic exclusion from Europe was not, unlike 2016, self-inflicted, but the strategic effects of a European hegemon, Napoleonic France between 1806 and 1808 and Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1944 (and I must state this is not in any way an attempt to compare the hegemon of the EU with those contexts). What is interesting here is the British response to those exclusions.

In the first instance, despite the great naval victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, Napoleon achieved hegemony in Europe during 1806-1807 allowing him to introduce an economic blockade of British goods. It was, in sorts, Brexit Mark I. The only country that did not adhere, Portugal, was invaded and the Royal Family evacuated to Brazil under Royal Navy escort. With British goods barred from European markets, British policy makers looked to expand overseas trade. America was trying to remain neutral through an Embargo Act of 1807 which forbade trade with Britain and France, that left Latin America. Here, following the failure of initial hard military intervention, the British looked to open up markets it had been traditionally excluded from. Isolating Spanish and Portuguese colonies from Europe was one strategic effect of British naval power, but also crucial was Napoleon's meddling in Iberia. The effect was to open up Latin American markets to British trade and expanding existing West Indies trade. British trade with America outside of the USA doubled in value from £7.8 million in 1805 to over £16 million by 1808. That compensated for the loss of trade with Europe and the United States. And it was British economic prosperity outside of Europe the provided the fiscal muscle to reengage with European politics by bankrolling the alliances of 1813-14 and 1815 that finally brought an end to the Napoleonic regime.

When Britain was excluded from Europe following the fall of France in 1940 the United States was far more amenable that it had been in the earlier example. Pre-war Britain's main trading partners had been Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, France and the USA. Now there was only the latter, plus of course, the Empire and it was a combination of mobilisation of imperial resources and American material, manpower and money that kept Britain fighting. In total America funded it allies to the tune of $50 billion during the Second World War and Britain and its empire (excluding Canada) received 58 per cent of Lend Lease, compared to the 28 per cent received by the Soviet Union. The plan kept Britain fighting until the time was right for the Western Allies to renter Europe, strategically and politically in 1944 and to try and shape a prosperous and peaceful post war Europe which ultimately involved the creation of NATO.

A recent edition of the Chatham House publication The World Today was subtitled 'Going it alone after 43 rocky years'. In both of the above cases of exclusion from Europe, Britain did not go it alone and the future of Britain post-Brexit will not be through trying to 'go it alone' (the concept of 'splendid isolation' is a myth).

The historical record shows us that when faced with European economic and political exclusion Britons have tried to achieve their political and economic security through overseas, primarily, transatlantic connections. When we consider recent events in Europe and Europe's near abroad, it is again to those connections that Britain is likely to turn for peace and prosperity.

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