James Hawes

Will the next generation wonder what the fuss over Brexit was about?

Robert Tombs thinks so, and aims to show how we can come together to build a new settlement and heal our fractured nation

Will the next generation wonder what the fuss over Brexit was about?
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This Sovereign Isle: Britain, Europe and Beyond

Robert Tombs

Allen Lane, pp. 203, £16.99

Robert Tombs’s new book is not long: 165 pages of argument, unadorned by maps or images. But brevity is good, and we pick it up expecting much insight, because its predecessor was so wonderful. In The English and Their History (2015), Tombs, a scholar of French, not English, history, boldly saw the wood where specialists saw only the trees. Surely, he said, England should have a history of its own. The election had just signalled that England-and-Wales might soon be a separate polity for the first time since 1707.

Tombs delivered a timely and gripping investigation of this land, so filled with marks of continuity, yet prone to occasional, apparently inexplicable, bouts of implosion. England was ‘normally peaceful and well governed; but if things went wrong, they went terribly wrong.’ His new book is even more urgent because things are indeed going terribly wrong. A serpent has entered the garden of England, engendering a unique fracture within us: ‘The Brexit controversy did not expose a previously unrecognised gulf between two nations: it opened one.’ Tombs intends, say his publishers, to show how we can ‘come together again to build a new settlement’.

We settle down with ears pricked up. But the first thing we hear is a jangle in the title: do ‘the British’ inhabit an isle, singular? Try getting that one past the DUP. Never mind. Tombs is fast out of the blocks, delighting again with brisk dismissals of our national myths. Island fortress? Only recently: ‘Until Nelson’s time, the island’s history was one of innumerable raids and invasions, at least nine of which since the Norman Conquest have overthrown governments.’ By page 24 we are already at the end of the second world war. The following 30 pages argue memorably that our entire ‘political class’ post-1945 were simultaneously delusional and pusillanimous: delusional about the EEC offering a last chance to strut the Great Power after Suez, pusillanimous about our ability to go it alone.

Bracing stuff, and very convincing. So, burdened with such fatuous leaders, we were, presumably, rather lucky that it ended so well? I mean, Thatcher and Major won their rebates and their opt-outs and kept us out of the euro, while still attracting vast inward investment as part of the world’s largest free-trade block, yes? No! roars Tombs. The EEC/EU is and was a Franco-German carve-up, inherently doomed to imminent collapse. We were lucky to escape.

The reader pauses. Can our admired iconoclast really be taking the line of every anti-EU scribe since 1993? Well, never mind, Brexit is done and dusted. No doubt Tombs, magnanimous in victory, will now show us how we might ‘come together again’. Instead, he launches into a 45-page rehearsal of Remainer iniquities after 2016. The reader blinks. What has possessed Tombs? Why re-fight a war you have won? Where is the ‘new settlement’?

The key to this diatribe lies in how Tombs sees the referendum. Now, as a scholar of 19th-century France, he knows damn well why holding referendums was the favourite device of the French Revolution and both Napoleons: referendums were how they marshalled ‘the will of the people’ as and when their plans demanded. Yet he maintains that Brexit really was a direct enactment of the will of the British (or rather, the English- and-Welsh) people, whose native wisdom, handed down in the referendum, saved us from the delusions of our rulers:

We do have a national story that has nourished Brexit. This we might call the ‘Magna Carta tradition’: the idea that when fundamental choices have to be made the people decide, and the rulers obey.

So, the decisions to go to war in 1914 and 1939 cannot have been ‘fundamental’ ones? Both were taken without further reference to ‘the people’, by parliamentarians elected (in both cases) four years previously. The Crown in Parliament decided, the people obeyed. That was the truly British way, the genuine inheritance of our constitutional centuries.

Just how far Tombs has changed can be seen if we look at his treatment of that central tale in our history, the Glorious Revolution. In 2015, an independently minded Cambridge don, he splendidly mocked Whig history, trenchantly reminding us that it was a Frenchman in the 1720s who invented the myth of the Glorious Revolution in which ‘Parliament and its defenders were made the embodiment of the nation and its history’; 1688 was really ‘the most momentous invasion — part conquest, part liberation — since 1066’. In 2021, now the public Brexiteer academic, he himself embraces that Whig history, suggesting parallels between brave Leavers and ‘the Glorious Revolution of 1688’ which involved ‘meetings of citizens, sometimes bearing arms, ready to enforce the popular will’. A historian who completely upends his view of so central an event, in such happy lockstep with a new political dispensation, owes us an account of what precisely he saw on the road to Damascus.

British politics has, Tombs rightly says, been dominated by ‘a three-decade-long feud within the Conservative party’. But he appears not to see that this provides the key to the mystery in his own wonderful last book. England is indeed well governed and peaceful — so long as its elite remain united. Whenever they split (the Reformation, the Civil War, 1715, 1909) the result is bitter strife. The three-decade Tory war was very public. This more than anything made ordinary Englishmen doubt their natural leaders. It is perfectly well documented that Farage, Goldsmith, Hannan & co tirelessly pursued, initially with little echo in the populace, their plan to achieve by a referendum what they would never obtain through Parliament. In the end they got their vote and won it. No wonder Douglas Hurd once described them as like ‘some demented Marxist sect’. It is they who brought the serpent into the garden, and have ‘read the rites on British conservatism’ (as Phil Stephens, director of the FT’s editorial board, put in on 4 September 2019); it is to them that Tombs has committed himself.

We now understand why he spent so long on the wickedness of Remainers. For the Hayekian Tendency, this war is far from over. The tumbrils are being readied. We need, says Tombs, all mild sagacity, to unite, so that ‘in a few years the new generation will wonder why people got so worked up’. But then comes the conspiracy theory, a Popish Plot for our times:

Mistrust and anger have accumulated about the legitimacy of the House of Lords and the Supreme Court, about the composition and representative nature of the political class as a whole, about the trustworthiness of the Electoral Commission, and about the impartiality of the BBC.

Try reading that list again. And in whom exactly has this ‘mistrust and anger’ accumulated? Tombs need produce no plaintiff, for this is no English court. He is a quaestor working in the name of the people.

A ‘new settlement’? Only, it seems, if we are happy to see a great many of us subjected to re-education first. How extraordinary that it has come to this. But then, as Tombs rightly put it back when he had not yet seen the Brexit light, with us English, ‘if things went wrong, they went terribly wrong.’