These Untied States: Thoughts on History and Brexit

EU Flag

This morning my first thought was about Erwin Schrödinger. The man with the thought experiment cat, you will recall, which owing to the intricacies of quantum physics, is both dead and alive in a box.

As I made my way from the bedroom to the living room to unplug my charging phone, Brexit still had and hadn’t happened. For a few more minutes, a few more seconds I had the power to decide when I would learn about the result. When I pressed the button and the screen came on, that decision was no longer something possible, something in the future. It had become something that had occurred. It had become the past. This morning, many people the world over will have had a similar experience. Knowingly or unknowingly. There was that moment, that turning point. The point at which the UK leaving the European Union transmogrified from just a possibility to a decision made.

At historical turning points, the historian’s mind turns to the importance of contingencies. But also to structures, discourses, and to the acts of single individuals, all in different doses depending on one’s academic affiliations and ontological premises. According to, that is, how much you value one way of explaining the world over another. For me, these pieces of the puzzle are always intertwined in a precarious dance; this event or political decision overriding, fortifying or reacting with that personal preference, born out of happenstance, dumb luck, genes or upbringing and ultimately unknowable, yet setting things on one track and foreclosing all the others. Structures exist around, with, and because of such things, and they have powers of their own both because they force or preclude certain actions and because they appear to make others possible or impossible.

The contingencies of Brexit will be analyzed by future historians, and they may be us. We may as well line up some source material on the day after. The journalistic efforts in the following days and weeks will likely concentrate on specific aspects of the vote, all pointing to a “How did this happen?” All the questions asked will be on some level important questions, but to explain historically what happened, we have to do more. We must attempt to tie together strands of explanation, and see if they hold together. We must examine corners and crevices of meaning and lay them out in various ways until some of those emerging pictures make sense of the whole, until they do not just convince as arguments, but actually help fashion out of the cornucopia of factors and causes a net that holds more weight than its parts ever could.

Ballot for Britain's Exit from the EU
The actual ballot for Britain’s exit from the EU

Some of the questions we should pose right away — not separately, but as moving parts in constant interaction — are: How did nativism and racism play into the Brexit vote? What was the role of British newspapers in fanning the fire, both in the immediate run-up to the vote and in the decades before? Could specific actions that David Cameron might or might not have taken have prevented this? (He did not want a referendum and aqcuiesced to it mostly as a way to silence EU critics in his party, and to contain the radical right around Nigel Farage. But was it inevitable that there should be a referendum at all, or did the politics of power within the Tories just make it seem like it was?) Why was there no coordinated strategy of EU leaders to counter this? Such questions also immediately connect to the larger crises of the European Union and their handling or mishandling by European leaders.

Further, how did the stupendous divide between age groups concerning “Leave” or “Remain” (with older people overwhelmingly choosing the former, and young people the latter) affect the dynamics of the vote? There are additional contingencies here. Let us speak of the weather. This is not just relevant, it is also appropriately British. Torrential rain and the resultant chaos in public transportation may well have affected younger voters likely to vote for “Remain”. Would the numbers have mattered? Would it have mattered if 16 and 17 year olds had been allowed to vote?

Polling Station Brexit
Way In? Not so much.

And finally, what was the Brexit vote actually directed against? The tag clouds seem to point to “immigration” as one of the largest talking points. Ironically, this is one of those things that will be least affected by the vote; if Britain wants access to the EU single market, it will have to swallow the pill of EU migration. Doubly so now that Brussels will be disinclined to accommodate the UK as a fellow member state.

In Germany, a popular cartoon shows a penguin carrying a sign with the word “Dagegen” (”Against”). The joke is that the sign never goes out of fashion, that it does not need to be specific. That it is just a general attack on the status quo. If general unhappiness with government was behind many of the Leavers’ votes, then that feeling will not disappear. Instead, it may grow. There is nothing the clown car full of Brexiteer delusionists, led by the ever self-serving Boris Johnson, can do about that. Especially not in a climate of such uncertainty as the referendum has created. The pound dropped more than 11% in just hours after the result became clear, its largest drop. Ever.

The pound has dropped

Many arguments can be made about how Brexit shows that democracy works or does not work or how direct referendums work or do not work. Behind the immediate outcome, though, something much larger lurks. It is the loss of belief in an idea, that of of a better future, weakened over decades of neglect and myopia, while the economic benefits of EU membership were privileged over everything else in the discourse.

Europe today is in a Schrödingerian state. And no, not just the EU as its technocractic corollary, as the big thing that it is easy to be against. The very ideal and idea of Winston Churchill’s “United States of Europe” with trade and transfer of people and things, and most importantly, without war, hangs in the balance. It is both alive and dead. It is both shocked into reform and panicked into complacency. Its q-function — the probability of things occurring — encompasses both the living and dead cat, “mixed or smeared out in equal parts.”

T. S. Eliot photo
“Do you remember nothing?” T. S. Eliot in 1934, photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

The contrast between the lifeline in an ocean of uncertainty and violence that is the idea of Europe and its ugly real world implementation; messy, co-opted by commercial and political interests; is stark. Yet, it is not seen as such. They are viewed as one. But ideas matter, and they can be used to hold a mirror to a reality that falls short. The idea of Europe, however, to generations who have become accustomed to its face, has lost its beauty. The fact that it presents itself a lumbering giant has deadened their vision to other facts: that it let people come together, that it immensely helped people find work, and furthered science. That it, most important of all, prevented war from coming again to a continent that had known nary a generation unacquainted with war. A hundred years ago, T. S. Eliot surveyed the wasteland created by one of those pointless, brutal, callous wars. He put forward a question:

“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

I for one believe in the European project, but not in all aspects of its current form. It used to be that more people thought about it this way. The fact that mostly young people voted “Remain” lets me believe that it can be again. The ties that bind the UK to the continent have been untied, but they have not been cut. There is a difference.

I have seen disconcerting tweets, spitting gallows humor. “Happy 1933 everyone” one read. The danger is real. The chance to instead reinvent the reality of the EU from its ideals, however, is as well. But it requires a deemphasis of the Europe that gives or takes money, a cessation of rhetorically constructing every EU regulation into something that will take away your freedom or adversely affect your pocket book. Some do, some do the opposite. What we need to do is learn balance. And to remember what came before the European Union. To recall that above all, the EU stands for stability and peace.

Future historians may start decoding our age by asking how we forgot that in the first place.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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