By Helen King (monthly contributor)
The old Chinese curse goes ‘May you live in interesting times’. And for those of us in Britain, the times seem to become more ‘interesting’ by the moment. The referendum decision for ‘Brexit’, which seems to have taken by surprise even those who were campaigning for it, raises many questions about what happens next. When will Article 50 be activated and the process of leaving the EU really begin? And on what terms would that be? As some who voted Leave now protest that they hadn’t understood what that would mean, and as many people didn’t bother to vote (or weren’t allowed to because they aren’t citizens), should there be a second referendum? How can Britain simply pull up the drawbridge and ignore Europe, when we have so many EU citizens resident in England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland? What about British citizens who’ve taken advantage of freedom of movement to live and work elsewhere in the EU? What about Scotland’s desire to Remain, at odds with that of England, and what about the relationship between peace in Ireland and the “soft border” between the north and the south?
And just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any more complicated, the Prime Minister announced his resignation, meaning that someone else will have to take Brexit forwards; an obvious contender withdrew; and the opposition Labour Party moved to self-destruct mode. At one moment, we were seeing the referendum as a decisive event in Boris Johnson’s inexorable rise to be Prime Minister: at the next, we were rewriting the story to make it part of his fall.
Can history help?
At this point, many people are looking at history in the hope of finding some perspective. For starters, as an ancient historian by training, I find myself thinking of the Roman Empire. The English Channel felt like a huge obstacle to the Romans when they tried to expand their empire to include what they called Britannia. Yet for the British tribes, that water had long been an opportunity to expand their trade networks. People on both sides of it were part of the same tribes: it was a connection, not a barrier. When Julius Caesar crossed the Channel and invaded Britain, did it feel like a historical change to the British tribes? Because it wasn’t; it was nearly 100 years before the emperor Claudius repeated the invasion and imposed any form of Roman government on the island. Writing between Caesar’s invasion and Claudius’ conquest, the geographer Strabo argued that, financially, it really wasn’t worth the trouble of conquering Britain.
And what about the bigger questions? How do we know whether this is really the end of the world as we know it? What does a turning point in history look like? How do we know one when it happens? It’s very hard to know what is going on while you’re actually in it, and maybe just as hard to know how historians looking back on today’s events in 50 or 100 years will assess them. In the run-up to the referendum, the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox felt like it was a turning point: but, was it? Who turned, and in what direction?
It’s often pointed out that nobody living through The Hundred Years War had any idea it would go on so long (and it lasted more than 100 years in any case). The assassination of Franz Ferdinand ‘started’ the First World War, but would it have happened in any case? The ancient historian Thucydides distinguished between underlying causes and immediate causes of war – suggesting that, if the underlying cause is already there, then a pretext will come along in due course. At the moment, we have no idea whether the rise in reports of racial hate in the aftermath of the referendum will prove to be a blip, or will be recorded as part of a wider rise in racism across Europe.
Turning to fiction
All this makes me reflect on how very difficult it is to write historical fiction, because it means trying to forget what we know happened next, and instead to see events through the eyes of someone living at the time. I think the current situation has given us a better sense of just how terrifying uncertainty can be. Maybe one of the problems right now is that we hear too many voices, in news reports and on social media. In the past, most people would have had no idea what was going on, hearing of political events weeks or months after they happened. Can we reconstruct what it was like for them to live through events which turned out to be turning points in history?
It’s the English novelist Ian McEwan who, in my opinion, has written the best analysis of the current uncertainty, likening us now to servants discussing the situation below-stairs, hearing above our heads the footsteps of the above-stairs people but not knowing what they mean. Taking up his words, has Britain changed utterly, or is this all a bad dream? And how long will it be before we can answer that?
And then there’s the ancient Chinese curse. Actually, there isn’t. As far as I’ve been able to discover, it isn’t Chinese and it isn’t ancient. Even that ‘fact’ proves to be slippery!