Brexit: To Understand It Go Back to the 17th Century

Source: The Economist, Bagehot’s Column, April 21

…­­­­For my money the best analysis of what happened was inadvertently penned by Hugh Trevor-Roper in his 1967 essay on “The Crisis of the 17th Century.” Trevor-Roper argued that the mid-17th century saw a succession of revolts, right across Europe, of the “country” against the “court.” The court had become ever more bloated and self-satisfied over the decades. They existed on tributes extracted from the country but treated the country as a collection of bigots and backwoodsmen. Many members of Europe’s court society had more to do with each other than they did with their benighted fellow-countrymen. The English civil war, which resulted in the beheading of a king and the establishment of a Republic, was the most extreme instance of a Europe-wide breakdown.

The parallels between the civil war and the referendum hold true of everything from geography to rhetoric. The Cavaliers control the cities. The Roundheads control the countryside. The Cavaliers boast of their superior civilisation. The Roundheads complain about blood-suckers. Trevor-Roper described the Civil War as a “revolt of the provinces not only against the growing, parasitic Stuart Court, but also against the growing ‘dropsical’ City of London; against the centralised Church, whether ‘Anglican’ or ‘Presbyterian’; and against the expensive monopoly of higher education by the two great universities”. Substitute the corporate oligarchy for the monarchy and the BBC for the Church and you have a reasonable description of the revolt of the Leavers. Trevor-Roper rightly concedes that, had the courts been capable of reforming themselves and moderating their arrogance and appetites, a great deal of needless bloodshed would have been avoided, and the path from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment would have been a lot easier.

The mid-17th century saw a huge amount of history compressed into a short period, so much that it has obsessed great historians like Trevor-Roper ever since. The same thing is happening in Britain at the moment. The next few weeks will see a lot of silly name-calling. It will see a lot of exciting political manoeuvrings. Political campaigns are blood sports not philosophical debates. But there are also huge issues that will dominate the coming years: can Britain negotiate a deal with Europe that preserves the advantages of globalisation while protecting people who worry about too much disruption? Can it address the longing for community without giving way to people who think that you can’t have “ins” without also having “outs”; can Britain renew its political institutions without giving in to McKinseyism or political correctness? And can Britain address the problem of low productivity, which is poisoning our politics and turning political life into a struggle of each against each?

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One response to “Brexit: To Understand It Go Back to the 17th Century

  1. Interesting, but I’m confused by the questions posed in the final paragraph.
    Is `disruption’ interference from bodies established in places other than Britain? What are the `ins’ and `outs’ and why are they a danger to those seeking community? What is McKinseyism and is it another name for political correctness?
    Your author is either writing for a clique (in which case the article should not be widely distributed) or in need of lessons in clarity.
    If by McKinseyism you mean slavish obedience to the edicts of the consultancy called McKinsey then I offer the following:
    If you want a successful business, hire an accountant; if you want to wreck a successful business make the accountant the manager.

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