It is more intellectually satisfying – and psychologically reassuring – to explain historic events through long-term causes rather than through accident. The “Rise of the Bourgeoisie” rather than Cleopatra’s nose. So with Brexit: a populist reaction against globalisation, disenchantment with conventional politics, economic and social inequalities, the conflict of “Somewhere” and “Anywhere” sensibilities…
But explaining causes is not the same as explaining outcomes. History rarely follows logical trajectories. The future, even in the short term, is unpredictable. Sometimes, it seems a matter of luck.
So it has been with Brexit. It is not difficult to imagine a very different scenario. The Covid pandemic hits all European economies hard. The Johnson government, keen to “take back control”, controversially stays out of the European vaccine programme. The EU’s coordination of national efforts quickly dampens down the Continental pandemic, while the UK remains gripped by high rates of illness and death, and the economy slumps. Denunciation of Boris Johnson becomes deafening, Jeremy Hunt challenges him for the party leadership, the government’s poll ratings crash, demands to rejoin the EU, led by Keir Starmer, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Nicola Sturgeon, gather growing public support. And so on.
General Joffre, the French commander in 1914, when asked later which general had won the battle of the Marne, replied “I don’t know who won it, but I know who would have been blamed for losing it.” Johnson’s decision to give a Tory peer the job of creating a vaccine programme, had it gone wrong, would have destroyed his career, and perhaps Brexit with it.
Instead, the European Union’s ineptitude, underlined by the antics of Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von der Leyen and co, unwitting cheerleaders for Brexit, have made rejoining the EU unthinkable except for a diehard minority. In a few years, young people may wonder why Brexit caused such a fuss.
Robert Tombs is Professor Emeritus of French History at Cambridge University
This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.