The Perse School

The Brexit Revolution

17 Nov 2016

Following on from the success of the 400th anniversary lectures, the first of The Perse’s Community Lectures was held last night, with Princeton Professor Harold James (OP 1974) speaking on the topic ‘Britain and Europe, past and future’.

The lecture was delivered to a packed house and was, in the words of Head Ed Elliott, a tour de force, encompassing centuries of European and world history, the seismic political events of recent weeks and months, and Shakespeare, including Cymbeline, which Professor James had directed as a member of the Lower Sixth at The Perse in the 1970s. Professor James’s lecture laid out the theme that the EU referendum on 23 June was a revolution, and explored the origins of Britain’s turbulent relationship with Europe, as well as the possible consequences as the UK redefines its position in the world.

James suggested that the political elite had a “semi-attached commitment to the European integration project”, and argued that Brexit may be the tragedy of a country that could not make up its mind. He then took a step further back in history to interrogate three reasons for this ‘semi-attached’ relationship, first considering the idea that the institution that would eventually become the EU was created in the 1950s for a very specific purpose – to protect farmers from globalisation – which was not such a problem in the UK.

Another view emphasises the political psychology of why such a political project was needed. This view suggests that the EEC was set up as a mechanism to prevent failures of the political class like those seen in Germany and Italy in the 1930s and in the defeat of France in 1940, in which fascism was able to rise and democracy destroyed itself. This failure of the political elite did not occur in the UK in the 1930s, so it was able to look outside this world when forging its political future.

James then explored a third argument, looking at the various prepositions Britain uses to describe its relationship with Europe – is it ‘in’ Europe, ‘of’ Europe, ‘with’ Europe? This tension has long roots, from Boris to Churchill, to Shakespeare and even the King James translation of St John’s Gospel. The ‘semi-attachment’ suggested by our tentative use of these prepositions has at times been a source of strength; we had no eternal allies, and therefore no perpetual enemies. However, Professor James argued that our future position may not be so advantageous, as political systems and parties in the UK and across the world struggle to adapt to the challenges of globalisation – a problem which is “destroying all political parties”.

At the end of his lecture Professor James admitted that it is difficult to predict the outcome of the Brexit revolution. Once again, he looked to Shakespeare, this time Hamlet, leaving us with a powerful image of just how much is at stake in these politically turbulent times. Recalling the numerous deaths in the final scene of the play, James predicted that we will see “a stage strewn with political corpses” as world leaders “struggle to find an adequate political vehicle to cope with the struggles of global life in the early 21st century”.

The next lecture in the series will be delivered by Lord Alderdice on 1 March 2017. More information can be found here.

Photographs courtesy of J Bowden (U6)

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