A millennium ago, in 1016, the people of England were going about their daily business of growing sheep and suchlike and probably didn’t realise that, these being days long before universal suffrage and representative democracy, they were about to become part of a Scandinavian empire and without a referendum. This happened when the Saxon King Edmund Ironside died.
Why? Well, the Saxons had already chosen Cnut as their king but London opted out and went with Ethered’s grandson Edmund Ironside. Then, as now, London was another country.
When Ironside died, London couldn’t hold out and Cnut the Great became the King of England. He was the Son of Sweyn Forkbeard a daughter of the King of Poland (bloody Polish kings coming over here and taking all of our monarch’s jobs). He was a grandson of Harald Bluetooth. He became the king of Denmark in 1018 and the King of Norway in 1028, forming the Anglo-Scandinavian North Sea Empire. This Empire, it has to be said, did not last very long but following Brexit, who knows!
Five hundred years ago in 1516, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was on the way to becoming biggest country in Europe. It eventually stretched from the Baltic down to the Black Sea and was powerful enough to invade Russia and occupy Moscow. I’m sure the inhabitants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which, by the way, had a very interesting constitution that included porto-democracy) thought that it would last for ever and found it very difficult to imagine any other form of government or, indeed, sovereignty.
Two hundred years ago, in 1816 (remembered as “the year without a summer”), in the newly independent United States of America (which was having another go at forming a central bank) the last-ever Federalist Party candidate lost the election to previous Secretary of State Monroe (just as the last-ever Republican Party candidate Donald Trump will lose to previous Secretary of State Clinton). America instituted a series of tariffs against British goods, deciding that following the war of 1812 it no longer wanted to be in a free trade alliance with us. Now we have TTIP.
One hundred and fifty years ago in 1866, there was a Latin Monetary Union, or “Victorian Euro” as I think about it. It was created by France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland but was later adopted by countries ranging from Peru and Venezuela to Serbia and Bulgaria. Another late joiner was Greece, in 1867. Greek economic problems meant that they began debasing their version of the currency and they were chucked out in 1908 and then let back in 1910. Ultimately the whole thing fell apart because countries printed paper money that wasn’t backed by a bimetallic reserve and it formally ended in 1927 (although the Swiss continued to mint coins to the LUM standards for size, weight and fineness until 1967). In 1866, people must have thought advantages of a single currency unarguable.
A century ago in 1916, the last Emperor or Russia, must have found it very difficult to imagine any other Russia than the feudal state he ruled. When Lenin (who once said that the best way to destroy the capitalist is to debauch the currency) led the October Revolution, overthrew the government and established a one-party state the average Russian must have been utterly astonished at the turn of events. Sometimes, things change really quickly. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Brexit is a revolution (far from it) but sometimes profound change can come along relatively quickly.
A generation from now, in 2056, who knows where we will be. It seems to me, though, that one plausible scenario is that set out in Gill Ringland’s report for Long Finance. She envisages a world dominated by cities rather than countries (which fits with my world view, the Jane Jacobs “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” perspective of economies as cities and their hinterlands). In such a world, where the mayor of London has more power than the Prime Minister and London’s trade deal in services with Beijing is more important than the UK’s trade in goods with China, we will probably remember the European Union much as we remember the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sterling as we remember the Latin Monetary Union. Neither the United Kingdom nor the Pound Sterling are laws of nature.
I know, I know, in the long run...
My point is that the referendum went Brexit. So we should live with it. I don’t like referendums. The idea of a “constitutional” referendum to decide a complex issue by a one-off simple majority, seems daft to me. Richard Dawkins had a point when he asked why we were being asked to vote on this at all, especially when we’re not allowed a referendum on anything else (e.g., capital punishment). And we’re going to have months, years of uncertainty before we get back on an even keel and will undoubtedly suffer economically through this period.
“If there are issues on which the populace at large should be trusted to vote, something as complicated and economically sophisticated as EU membership is definitely not one of them.“
I know it sounds elitist, but I kind of agree with him. But we are where we are. I was marginally on the remain side, but I didn’t imagine that the EU would last terribly long in its current form or that Euro would survive. I thought in another decade or so we’d have a renegotiation following a euro collapse and new EU would emerge from those discussions with a core or business-class EU centred on France and Germany and an outer EU centred on us and our Scandinavian friends (hence my fantasies about the return of the North Sea Empire!).
If Brexit does happen in its current form, which seems far from certain, we’ll be fine. We’ll end up in TTIP, we’ll have a trade deal with the single market, we’ll have a free trade zone with the Commonwealth and so on. The thick as pigshot Brexit racist arseholes who are out setting fire to the sheds of Polish taxpayers will be defeated and the dire warnings of the Remainers will fade.
The title, by the way, is another quote from Lenin.