A SHORT HISTORY OF BREXIT

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2019), Volume 27

KEVIN O’ROURKE
Pelican
€20
ISBN 9780241398272

Reviewed by
Eoin Dillon

Eoin Dillon is a scholar of twentieth-century African history.

Brexit has produced a crisis in the British body politic unparallelled since the Second World War. Suez in 1956, when France, the UK and Israel tried to re-seize the canal from the Egyptians and had to turn tail when the US threatened financial collapse, was a wake-up call; the empire was gone, the United States now the power-broker. France and Germany buried some of their differences and formed the EEC: if they were not to be caught in a power vacuum between the Soviet Union and the United States, they had to pool their resources. Britain stayed out, still tied to the Dominions and the US.

Brexit threatens complete UK marginalisation in international politics and the sundering of the UK domestically. The UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US is a fiction so special that only the UK knows about it. Scotland, marginalised in a union dominated by England, will most likely seek independence. If so, Northern Ireland dithers in limbo, exhibiting dangerous signs of complete implosion, before the English parliament dumps it altogether as militarily redundant, financially burdensome and politically irrelevant in a Balkanised parliament where any number of more congenial political partners for a minority government are available. The UK/England realises that the former colonies are not about to open up their markets to competition in emerging sectors that need protection in the medium term. England has come full circle from the seventeenth-century advent of imperial adventure and eventual financial pre-eminence to sink beneath the waves.

All this should lead to a vibrant political and economic debate: myriad futures considered, modified, rejected and reconfigured, as the baleful political economy of the last 40 years is laid to rest. Instead, it has resulted in interminable reiteration of simplistic and delusional articles of faith: ‘Brexit means Brexit’; ‘leave means leave’; all complexity is reduced to a single-issue power struggle in which multiple contests are really at play. This is very dangerous.

K.H. O’Rourke, an economic historian, has written an account of Brexit with chapters on Ireland, even as the outcome remains unknown. It is a book originally written in an educated style for a small French audience. He lets you know that his background is Irish diplomacy abroad, that his present work address is in Oxford, that he has homes in Dublin and France: suave, polished, fluent, technocratic, everything the ardent Brexiteer is not. And that is part of the problem: Brexit isn’t about economics—the ‘sunny uplands’ promised by free trade deals with India and China are a ruse sold to achieve constitutional reform in line with an old sense of imperial national English identity grafted on to present discontents. For once, economics is secondary.

It is a sense of Englishness forged in the first half of the nineteenth century: the English nation as herrenvolk, industry its material expression, the empire geographical proof. Nearer home, France is a cultural reference point but a contemptible nation-state, Ireland oriental. Ultimately, the UK fought in two world wars to safeguard the empire, not to save Europe. The empire is gone, England remains. Enoch Powell, father of Brexit, summed it up in 1964:

‘The power and the glory of empire have gone, but in the midst of the “blackened ruins”, like one of her oak trees, standing, growing, the sap rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, is England herself … embodied in three enduring principles … unity under the crown in Parliament, its historical continuity, and its racial homogeneity.’

England is not as bound up with Europe as O’Rourke would like to think.

Blair’s administration: empire gone; US imperialism and colonialism rampant; triggered by 9/11, British tommies soldier to defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq; domestically, colonial fracture, as resentful Muslim migrants are told to know their place—the Raj. In 2008 the banks collapse: austerity and tax rises are passed on to ordinary people. An embattled English nationalism blind to internal dynamics, mourning supposed EU-induced state impotence, feeds into Brexit, which has racism at its core. O’Rourke’s assessment of the Blair premiership: ‘Nonetheless, it had in many ways been a successful premiership, during which the Tory Party had at times seemed unelectable’. But other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

On Northern Ireland O’Rourke has little new to say. His assessment, made in September 2018, that, while irrelevant during the referendum campaign, Northern Ireland has since become central to the outcome of Brexit talks and could lead either to a very soft or a very hard Brexit is as valid now as then. He also writes an encomium to the EU’s role in Ireland’s economic transformation. His own recent work on the spread of industrialisation might suggest that a more critical approach is warranted. Brexit is an English phenomenon: if O’Rourke wants to understand it, he will have to get out more—leave his Oxford college now and then and take a hard trip down the Cowley Road.

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