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Historian Robert Tombs says Brexit means Britain’s elite is revolting
Brexit – Britain’s vote to exit the European Union – is invariably mentioned in the same breath as Americans deciding to put Donald Trump into the White House.
A rush of populist blood to the head. A breakout of the political id. A xenophobic, even semi-racist inward turn by voters. A self-inflicted national blunder – for Britain, the worst since losing the American colonies. A Rolls-Royce driven by drunks. The long-lost final episode of Fawlty Towers, as one commentator smirked.
And in a frequent and damning Australian criticism, it seems a deluded retreat into colonial nostalgia for Empire and vanishing global power.
Not a bit of it, says one of the rare senior British academics to openly back Brexit. Robert Tombs, emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge University is a precisely spoken don a million kilometres from Brexit caricatures like former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, and a man who knows more corners of the French countryside than he does the hedgerows of England.
Au contraire, he says. The real nostalgists were Britain’s political class who threw themselves at the then-European Economic Community in the 1970s in a fit of declinism, a misguided pessimism about the British economy – and then in the corridors of Brussels found a comfortable psychological substitute for running their multi-nation empire.
“For the politicians and diplomats the EU was better than ending up as greater Sweden, with the Americans not taking them seriously any more,” he says.
Now, this has all been smashed by a worthy revolt against a crumbling, unsustainable EU. All the political damage since then, says Tombs, is coming from the same elites trying to overturn the judgment of the people.
We are at The Bridge Room in Sydney, standing chatting while another table is found that better suits the lighting needed for the photo shoot, no small matter at these lunch interviews.
The photographer is eventually happy. We sit down with the menu. Tombs choses the John Dory, and I pick the Kurobuta pork. This is a table of Britons, and mashed potato is ordered.
Like many who live outside Britain, I am still baffled at the Brexit choice, and curious about his support. The proud French don’t seem any less French because they follow laws made in European courts, and the Germans furiously export wherever they like. So why do the Brits complain these are all problems for them? I ask.
“Well everyone is in the EU for their own reasons,” he says. “The Italians and the Greeks are locked into the euro. Unlike us, they have no way out. The reason why the French can cope with loss of sovereignty is because they think they can get greater leverage over Europe through their relationship with Germany. Whether that is true, or not, is another matter.”
But wasn’t the leave vote really a timorous one? I suggest. Less all the Leaver rhetoric about “global Britain”, than stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off parochialism? An old cause of Tory small-government obsessives that somehow ended up a vehicle for an anti-globalisation backlash?
“Well. No. Polling after the referendum showed it was mostly Remainers who voted in fear of the economic consequences. The EU is ultimately a protectionist bloc,” he says, “designed to keep out the great powers. Being too small to cope seems part of the the Remainer mindset.”
All the language of the Leave campaign is signing global deals. Which even if they happen, cannot replace exports to the EU, I interject.
“Our trade with the EU is declining as a percentage of the total. Even if we stayed in,” Tombs says, “it would fall below the level that the UK Treasury predicted for us if we left the EU.” That is very different from the 1960s story when a nervous Britain assumed Europe was the font of growth (distorted by the catch-up urbanisation of agrarian France and Italy, he says).
“That growth of trade with the rest of the world is not bad for a country that still thinks of itself as economically incompetent. Is it the economy that you are worried about?,” he asks suddenly, clearly sensing that it is.
He says that economist members of an academic group to which he belongs have checked the Treasury forecasts of post-Brexit doom and found them fundamentally flawed. But the house journals of the elite, like The Economist and The Financial Times, ignore it, he says, because it does not fit their “catastrophic … abysmally negative” narrative. “If you take an optimistic view, it could be quite galvanising,” he suggests.
He’s right. A lot of journalistic reputations are at stake in Brexit. I’m skipping the wine list, but Tombs chooses a glass. The waiter suggests something similar to a tokai – “very sweet and floral” – which I instantly suspect is not him at all. Or a riesling, perhaps. “How dry is the riesling?” asks Tombs. “Very dry.” That’s the one.
It’s the end of British politics as usual too.
John McTiernan, a former adviser to Blairite New Labour (and Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, too) has written that Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, zealots of their parties whose political careers ended in failure decades ago, have in death won the big arguments. Labour has dug up the coffin of its mid-20th century socialism, while the old anti-immigration reflex powers the Brexit Tories.
And the Brexit hardliners have been accused of acting more like revolutionary Jacobins than Burkean conservatives, monstering ancient British institutions that exist to temper the popular will – like the independence of judges and the sovereignty of parliament – because they dare stand in the way of Brexit.
The historian isn’t going to let that pass. No, they are not. The political chaos is coming from a revolt of the elites against a democratic decision. Parts of the political class and public service are playing a risky game, he says: “Louis XVI came unstuck because he tried to stop the revolution.” A Remain-supporting, Labour ex-minister ominously told Tombs at the time of the vote that it would fail because “the deep state won’t allow it”. And it was after the referendum that elites began expressing their disdain for the “populist” decision, he says. “The anger in British politics is a consequence of the referendum result, not the cause of it.”
But wasn’t angst inevitable when nobody knew what the terms of Brexit would be? They were never spelled out because former prime minister David Cameron never expected to lose, Tombs says. “That was why nobody ever tried to sell the EU except for: ‘You will lose some money if you don’t stay in.’ Either voters were not worried, or they didn’t believe him.”
But Brexiteers also assumed wrongly that the EU, or more correctly Germany, would put its large trade surplus with Britain first and quickly negotiate a new deal. In fact the EU seems bent on making sure Britain is seen to lose and no-one else breaks ranks.
But then how would Westminster have treated Scotland if it had voted to leave the UK in 2014? I ask. “Not like this,” he says. “They would have accepted what had happened and made the best of it; minimised the damage.” Brussels, he says, is acting more like the high-handed British over rebellious 19th century Ireland.
Leavers like Tombs feel vindicated by the EU’s own stumblings. Indeed, two months after our lunch, Italy’s elites backed by Brussels and Berlin had attempted to thwart the plans of the country’s election-winning populist parties. That is exactly what Britain’s elites are doing. But Italy’s agony hardly helps the Remainer case that the EU is the way of the future with which Britain must be integrated, he tells me later.
“The EU is not going to get any more successful or popular,” he says. Political systems fail when they get too complex, and the EU is bogged down in itself: “the apex was the euro. Now it’s in trouble”.
Couldn’t the EU split into a multi-speed, multi-directional entity around the Franco-German core, I ask?. “But the assumption even then is that the most integrated parts will go at the fastest speed. It does not seem to me that’s very likely,” he says.
In 2014, Tombs published a superbly-reviewed book –The Guardian noted it was “unfashionably upbeat” – called The English and their History. The historian’s job is to recreate living in the midst of great undecided struggles – the English Civil War, or the Finest Hour of 1940 – when the future was terrifying. “My thoughts are a labyrinth”, Tombs finds a Puritan woman writing at the height of the civil war. So what will historians say about the Brexit moment?
“It is not a disaster,” he says. “There are no strategic threats to the UK right now. The British are better off in safety and prosperity than they have ever been. The breakdown of political loyalties and the decline of social solidarity is no worse in the UK than anywhere else.”
Tombs is less worried about the economic impact, than the class and cultural divisions opening up in the country as elites push back on the decision. “There are things being said that have not been heard since the middle of the 19th century: ‘People of this educational level should not vote. They are too stupid. It is too complicated. They don’t live in places I go to.’ Well, Mr Gladstone would not have believed that. This is not a populist revolt against the Establishment, this is an Establishment revolt against the people.”
I give it one last push. Perhaps that’s because they understand that nations make historic blunders they do not recover from. Is “have cake and eat it” – Boris Johnson’s gauche pre-referendum claim – going to be Britain’s epitaph?
No, he says. “Epitaphs follow wars and economic catastrophe.” This is neither; “Though the bourgeois revolt might make it a political train crash for a while.”
We have run well over time. We’re joined for pudding and coffee by Bella D’Arbrera, head of the Foundations of Western Civilisation program at the Institute of Public Affairs, which has brought Tombs to Australia for a series of talks.
We talk about Tombs’ forthcoming road trip in the Western Australian bush while he is here. He puts at least some of his Brexit inclinations down to spending more holiday time in Australia and India than bourgeois bubbles like Tuscany, where the British chattering classes cluster.
And we discuss his book, The English and Their History, over caramel and fruit – and rather randomly, conclude that Australia’s property obsession began with the Norman Conquest. Tombs wrote that Saxons wore their wealth as bling; the Normans put theirs into buildings. People from the British Isles, it seems, have been doing so ever since.
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With an avg. 1.2M voters per MEP & Britain with 16% of EU GDP and 13% of the EU’s population yet having only 8% (if united) say whilst holding less than 3% of the various offices within the EU Do note The EUropean Parliament has no ability to make policy and has a Commission of unelected bureaucrats, thus clearly the EU is not even a pretence of being a democracy!Do note that many senior apparatchicks and even elected politicians speak openly of the ‘Post Democratic era’ with no sense of shame or irony and in complete contempt of the so called electorate – yet The EU & many of its vassal States/Regions are all too willing to slaughter people in Sovereign States, to impose The EU’s chosen brand of democracy on them!Now as President Junker announced in his ‘State of the union’ speech 2017 the aim is to create an EU military force and centralise ever more of the decision making and control!
The imposition of a Government and policies upon its vassal regions such as the peoples of Greece shows just how far from being a democracy the EU is.
There will be little or no change in Britain’s economic position, when we leave the EU, using a better negotiated, customised & updated version of the ‘Norway Model’ as a stepping stone to becoming a full member of the Eropean Economic Area, where all will benefit, as we secure trade relations with the EU’s vassal regions, with an EFTA style status and can trade and negotiate independently on the global stage, as members of The Commonwealth and the Anglosphere.
Do not overlook the fact that politicians have plotted and schemmed since the 1950s and we have actually been vassals of the EU, when it was still using the aesopian linguistics and calling itself The Common Market in the early 1970s, a name the bureaucrats arbitrarily changed to EUropean Union in the early 1990s as they worked towards their long term goals of an ever closer centrally controlled Political and economic Union with its own anthem, currency, flag and rigid central control by its self appointed bureacrats towards a new Empirate –
It will take many years to rectify the mess our political class got us into and we have no other peacefull means by which to extricate ourselves than to depend on that self same self styled elite, who all too often forget they work for us!
One huge benefit of BreXit will be that we can negotiate with bodies like the WTO, UN, WHO, IMF, CODEX and the like, directly, in our own interest and that of our partners around the world, in both the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere at large; rather than having negotiations and terms imposed by unelected EU bureacrats and their interpretation of the rules handed down, as if they were some great achievement of the EU’s!The greatest change and benefit will be political, as we improve our democracy and self determination, with the ability to deselect and elect our own Government, with an improved Westminster structure, see >Harrogate Agenda<.How we go about the process of disentangling our future wellbeing from the EU is laid out in extensive, well researched and immensely tedious detail see >FleXcit< or for a brief video summary CLICK HERE
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