Prediction is a mug’s game; a number of futures could unfold from the circumstances of a given moment, and even if some are more probable than others, the unexpected – by definition! – can happen. Harold Macmillan said that a week is a long time in politics, but it a long time in many other social and historical senses too.
A glance across the landscapes of history can nevertheless be suggestive when wondering about possible futures. Given how things are in today’s United Kingdom, it is interesting to speculate, in however generalised and schematic a way, about what might be in store for it and its citizens.
One possible future – fanciful, perhaps; but worth considering anyway – as viewed from the beginning of real Brexit and the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, might be prefigured in certain aspects of events that occurred in France in 1789, China in 1911, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1919, the RAF (surprisingly) in South Asia in 1946, and Egypt in 2011. Although different in most respects, some of them major, there is a common and familiar theme in these events also.
That theme can be summarised as follows. Any combination of social, economic and political stress has, when a certain limit is crossed, a tendency to cascade into a more severe upheaval, not infrequently in the form of revolution. Revolutions are rarely inherited by those who start them, but instead benefit others with different and almost always worse policy agendas to impose. In this series of steps the initial stress starts a journey towards a problematic destination.
Consider the examples cited. The consequences of the French Revolution of 1789 were the Terror of 1793 and the rise of Napoleon and the wars that followed. The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 had a proximate outcome in 1949, year of the birth of the People’s Republic of China, but the long consequences are still unfolding. The Menshevik seizure of power in Russia in February 1917 was itself usurped by the Bolsheviks in the famous October events of that year, with Lenin and Stalin to follow. The Spartacist uprising in Germany in 1919 was followed by a dozen years of tenuous Weimar economic and political uncertainty, then Nazism.
In 1946 50,00 Other Ranks in the Royal Air Force mutinied at air bases across India, Ceylon and Malaya, in an already inflammatory context in India where the British government was relying chiefly on the RAF to police the region, before the hair-trigger possibility of revolution there was dampened by agreement over independence. One factor in the latter was the mutiny’s demonstration that Britain was unlikely to be able to maintain control. In 2011 middle-class liberal youths in Cairo’s Tahrir Square toppled Mubarak, only for their achievement to usher in an Islamist government, itself soon toppled by a regime more hardline than Mubarak’s had been.
The sequence exemplified in these cases – roughly drawn – is “a major destabilising change caused by or involving a group of actors X prompts a reaction consisting of pushback or upheavals in which a group of actors Y are involved, followed by Z actors stepping in and imposing circumstances typically worse, harsher, less acceptable to either X or Y than the situation prompting or constituting the original destabilising change”.
On this model, the UK’s possible future looks like this: the X actors are the Brexiters, the Y actors are those opposed to Brexit and/or the direction in which the Brexiter government is pushing the country, the Z actors are those who – in line with Plato’s characterisation of what happens when social and political instability becomes intolerable to everyone: see Book VIII of his Republic – step in: it could be a demagogue (Robespierre, Lenin), a general in civilian clothes (al-Sisi), a hard-line clique (Hitler and the Nazis, Mao and the Communist Party of China), but in any case nothing savoury.
This sketch is highly generalised and speculative, yes. The habitual political inertia, passivity, sluggishness, apathy, dullness, oscitancy, lack of awareness – call it what you will – of the British people, could well result in nothing more than a slow decline into further torpor, the ship of state sinking into the mud there to list and rust, a decayed theme-park. Behind the “Global Britain” rhetoric of Brexiters, that is itself a possible – perhaps probable – scenario if the Y to Z future sketched above does not happen. But consider some straws in the wind.
One of the epiphenomena of all but one of the events listed above – the exception is the RAF mutiny, on which more below – is the movement of significant numbers and kinds of people into exile. French aristocrats and White Russian reactionaries might be no loss to their native lands, but the intellectuals and scientists of central Europe enriching the minds of Britain and the United States in the 1930s is another matter. Though currently muted by Covid, the flight from Brexit Britain has already begun; half a million young people have left so far, and a million citizens of EU countries who had worked in the UK’s health, care, construction trades and higher education sectors have likewise gone. A number of people personally known to me in the arts, literary and higher education arenas are in process of leaving or planning to do so, the volume of conversation about this spiking in immediate reaction to corruption revelations involving government cronies, the failures in the Government’s Covid response, the Police Bill and its implications for the direction of policy, the degrading of public discourse through lies, misinformation and extreme media partisanship, and the economic shrinkage being caused by Brexit and all that this portends. The comorbidity of these factors paints a dismal picture of the UK’s future even before one considers the possibility that the phrase “the UK” may denote just England and Wales – not inconceivably: just England – in the coming years.
This is a problem for the Remainers now becoming a different kind of Leaver. England’s Conservative majority, and the fact that the Conservative Party’s move to the right to swallow as much of the UKIP, Brexit Party, BNP and National Front vote as it can, with the result that it is practically indistinguishable from them in troubling respects – “you are what you eat” – is at the core of this. The future for anyone on the spectrum leftwards from the “wet” wing of the old Ken Clarke-Dominic Grieve Conservative Party, through the centre of politics to the liberal left and onward, looks correlatively unpalatable.
For those rightward of the “wet Tory” line, the most apt metaphors are provided either by the frogs in ever-warming water, or the passengers in the tumbrils rattling across Paris in 1793. They are frogs if the new Conservative right-wing hegemony beds in, and the country becomes a parody of the Littlest England one can imagine. They are tumbril passengers, if only and (one hopes) figuratively, the Zs take over, and the nightmare of a Soviet or Pinochet-like situation – these being much the same in effect – comes true. If the sequence outlined above occurs, it is in the balance which of these alternatives is more likely.
A plausible punch on the Abort button that would prevent any of the above would be ejection of the current government and election of a rational, reforming, reset government. One such sequence might be an electoral pact by all opposition parties (necessary because while opposition to the Conservatives is fragmented, the electoral system will give the Conservatives a parliamentary majority on a minority vote), electoral and wider constitutional reform, and another say on EU membership (which would most likely result in rejoining). Given the ideological introversion of Labour and the fact that it hates the other opposition parties more than it hates the Tories, this is unlikely.
If one speculates why certain revolutions had rosier consequences than those cited above – England in 1688, the thirteen North American colonies in 1775 – it was because the antecedent circumstances were wholly political, not economic, and because those who articulated their principles and led them were intelligent, rational and clear-sighted people. There is no John Locke, no Jefferson or Madison, among Brexiters, as an examination of the motives and principles of the “European Research Group”’(ERG) leaders shows. Alas for the ERG, the architects of the original impulse towards European cooperation and unity in the years after the Second World War were more of the Locke and Madison stamp – Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Alexandre Kojève, Winston Churchill, Jean Monnet – and in the longer run intelligence, principles and (this being the main respect in which Churchill contributed) vision, tend to win out.
If one speculates why certain other attempted revolutions failed – the “Springtime of the Peoples” in 1848, for example – it is most likely because the antecedent conditions had not ripened sufficiently for them to succeed. Economic hardship and absence of civil liberties were present, but the vanguards of the uprisings in Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Denmark and elsewhere, mainly liberal and pro-democratic in character, fell out both among themselves and with the more radical forces – the Zs – that quickly rose in their wake and acted as the Socialist Workers (archetypal Zs) always do here, tagging onto any and every demo going, and in 1848 alienating much of the reform constituency. The existing regimes had reorganised and put down the uprisings by the end of 1848; it was a brief spring indeed. What things might have been like if the revolutions had succeeded, and especially if Zs had subsequently captured them, is anyone’s guess.
Some will be surprised, others intrigued, about references to the RAF mutiny of 1946 in India and elsewhere in South Asia. Britain’s wartime coalition government, with Attlee’s Labour Government maintaining the policy, had decided that the extremely expensive business of policing the empire was to be done largely by the RAF, and the RAF was therefore to be least reduced in numbers of all three services. As a result, demobilisation of RAF personnel proceeded very slowly, and tens of thousands of its Other Ranks were retained under canvas in airfield camps from Bombay to Singapore and beyond, ill-fed and plagued by heat, disease, poor conditions and uncertainty, most of them conscripts eager to get home. Officers had a pleasanter time billeted in maharaja’s palaces with servants to pour their gin and punkah-wallahs to keep them cool.
The aircraftmen were told that there were not enough ships to get them home, but when rumours circulated that sailors were reporting empty ships heading back through the Suez Canal, first one then another and soon dozens of strikes broke out on airfields. At the same time, India was a hair-trigger away from a major uprising, and when sailors in the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in Bombay harbour and were threatened with a visit from RAF bombers, the strikes began to take on the form not merely of complaints about conditions and the desire for demobilisation, but a political refusal to be complicit in British imperialism. The strikes had offered the Communist Party a golden opportunity, which they took – Party members Arthur Atwood and others were subsequently put on trial for their endeavours among the mutineers – and the general feeling was that with a Labour government in power, voted in by most of those on strike, the political climate was favourable for it.
The point of including the RAF episode in this account is that it exemplifies the pattern described above: in the aftermath of a difficult and stressful series of events – war being a prime but not sole example – in the uncertainty and vacuum of activity that follows, and in the sense that things are or should be different, the sequence involving Y then Z impends. Matters did not quite reach the Z stage in the RAF mutiny, but they could have done. With the luck and legerdemain by which the British ruling establishment has so often escaped – think of the paltry electoral reform in 1832 which pacified the country at scarcely any cost to the establishment: a paradigm case of the technique – a double debacle in India was avoided. The question is whether the current iteration of the ruling establishment – those towering intellects Raab and Patel, that man of the impoverished masses Rishi Sunak, that principled scrutiniser of detail Boris Johnson, that music hall toff Rees-Mogg – can pull it off again. Or whether Y then Z will this time follow them into the china shop where they are busy crashing about.
To mute at least some of the howls that the foregoing might prompt, I repeat – admit, confess – that, yes, these are mere generalisations about history and mere speculations about the future, that my place in the alphabet is avowedly Y – if I stay – and that it is as likely that some rump of the UK will be rusting in the mud in 20 years’ time as that it will be ruled by a Stalin or Pinochet. It is also not impossible (the unexpected happens) that the UK will have trans-Moggrified into a Brexiter paradise, exporting large amounts of technology to most countries and intimidating others with its nuclear arsenal, attracting substantial amounts of foreign investment because of its tax-haven status as a Mecca for any money from anywhere, however earned or got, the national assets (NHS etc.) sold, neo-Tories and their friends richer than the richest Russian oligarchs, the demos legally silenced and subservient and perpetually bound to “elect” Conservative governments because the First Past the Post votes of the majority do not count – an ERG dream come true. This too could happen.
Perhaps. But then again…
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