I happen to be in London this week — England, not Ontario — which actually made last night’s Brexit vote results harder to follow than being five hours behind in Montreal would have done. Unlike some of my telegenic, modern-leaning and public-spirited colleagues in North America (Brian Cowan at McGill, for example), I have not been asked by anyone for my opinion on the referendum, nor have I bothered to broadcast it. There’s been no shortage of better-informed people saying everything I would try to say and more. And, in the event, it hasn’t mattered.
Which is worrying, since I think most of us (following the polls, but also the bias of our confidence in what seems logical) expected Remain to win. Much as most of us, I imagine, expect Trump to lose in November. As the Guardian strikingly put it today — speaking of Parliament, but in words that might apply to academia as well — “the referendum has shown that the minority speak for the people.” One thing that that suggests is that racism, xenophobia, and sheer stupidity are not the only things driving these campaigns. Another point of which we can be certain, though, is that they are no obstacle to winning.
But historians make poor futurologists. They’re like everyone else in that regard.
Looking instead at the past, I think about my own teaching load, which next year includes a survey of early modern European history (in which Britain plays a sometimes minor, sometimes prominent, and sometimes undifferentiated part), a lecture course on early modern Britain (in which the creation of a meaningful “Britain” out of three separate kingdoms and four broad nations takes place in close and constant connection with European events, processes, and people), and another on the Scientific Revolution (a crucial aspect of which was the creation of a variety of cosmopolitan intellectual communities and institutional networks). Or I think even about my fourth, more generic course, on research methods, in which I am likely to find myself pushing students to think beyond the nation-state as a meaningful unit of analysis. Relatively few interesting questions can be asked and answered entirely within the confines of national history. One reason is that relatively little of human experience has been lived that way.
Going farther back — in biographical terms — I recall the history I learned in the English schools of then-British Hong Kong. History there was, of course, the history of Britain and the Empire — which might, in a colony, seem fair enough. (At least, from the colonizer’s perspective.) But this meant that, sitting on China’s edge, we heard all about the Romans and Saxons but picked up Chinese history itself only from 1842; Indian history, as far as I am aware, ended with Gandhi. (Have I missed anything?) Perhaps more forgivably, English featured novels set in landscapes many of us probably struggled to imagine — English suburbs or the Belfast of the Troubles. For sheer missed opportunity, though, Geography won by a country mile: in the middle of a city of over 6 million, one of the centres of the 1990s global economy, we studied urban development through the lens of Milton Keynes.
Obviously, none of this in itself argues for or against Brexit or any other set of economic or political arrangements; I will leave such pros and cons to the many people who study them for a living. (I’m not tired of experts.) What it does suggest is the apparently boundless human capacity for cognitive dissonance where national(ist) fantasy is concerned, a capacity that seems to me discernible in the vision of British history as a stand-alone “island story” or the notion of immigration from — and indeed all manner of interaction with — Europe and elsewhere as anything other than central to the formation of both the British state and the population that makes it up. Steer it as boldly as you might, this island is going nowhere.