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Stop Looking for Meaning in Brexit

This wasn't some great multi-decade reckoning. It wasn't foreordained. It was a series of accidents.

David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys, a charismatic history teacher at a state school in 1980s northern England attempts to tutor students for the entry exams of Oxford and Cambridge. “How do you define history?” one student gets asked in a mock interview. “How do I define history? It’s just one bloody thing after another,” the student replies.

Since the June 2016 referendum in favor of ending the UK’s membership of the European Union, analyzing Brexit’s causes has become something of a public pastime. Approaches tend to fall into one of two categories: The first one understands Brexit as the result of economic forces, looking back at the 2008 financial crisis and its continuing impact, as well as at the austerity policies of Conservative governments from 2010 onwards, which left many people with worse-paying and less secure jobs. In this story, the EU becomes a scapegoat for the sins of domestic politics. The second approach focuses on issues of identity: A resurgence of nationalism and a nostalgic yearning for a lost, glorious pasta rejection of the political elite and the educated classes by those who feel socially and politically disenfranchised, or a flailing from a former Great Power still coming to terms with its decline.

But as much truth as these narratives contain, they ignore a central aspect of the current mess: the accidental nature of many of its most crucial turning points. The current impasse in British parliament over the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the fact that a mere two months from the date the UK is set to leave, the nature of the exit remains unknown, are easy to blame on individual politicians. But they’re also a stark reminder of just how contingent history can sometimes be. Alan Bennet’s irreverent student wasn’t wholly wrong.

Both Hegel and Marx have shaped the modern view of history as something trend-based, driven by larger forces. History has a logic of its own, its own internal dynamic, they theorized, and individual human actors who might be seen as responsible for bringing about events, are merely vessels, carrying forward a more or less inevitable result. If it weren’t Napoleon charging through Europe, it would have been someone else. Brexit would always have happened, one way or another.

But there is a different way of viewing history, according to which historical events do not happen out of necessity. Contingency and chance, instead, are the order of the day. For Friedrich Nietzsche, part of a younger generation of German philosophers writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, any talk of necessity smacked of a discredited Christian view of the world, according to which there is a pre-ordained structure to the universe. Instead, he believed that events in history have many different and unrelated sources, and that outcomes are often down to contingent factors. In this picture, individuals are a part of the motor of history—not merely the passengers. Or to put it another way: If you “kill baby Hitler,” as the Internet debated in 2015 and again last month, perhaps the Holocaust doesn’t happen.

The sheer catalogue of things that had to happen in order for the UK to be in its current position supports this Nietzschean view of history. Back in 2015, David Cameron was running for prime minister for the second time, having promised an “In—Out” referendum on the UK’s EU membership as part of his party’s manifesto. At the time, many believed that there was going to be a “hung parliament,” and that Cameron’s Conservatives would have to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who were unlikely to agree to such a risky referendum. Defying the polls, however, the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority. Cameron promised to negotiate a better deal with the EU before calling the referendum. Despite getting most of what he asked for from the EU, the focus was on what he didn’t get—the right to an emergency stop to European immigration.

Much has been written about the uninspiring campaign the “Remain” side fought during the public debate leading up to the referendum. Even the “Remain” name retrospectively seemed the dullest possible choice, offering no vision other than the bleak picture it painted of the UK’s future outside the EU.

But even after the result was declared, 52 percent to 48 in favor of leaving the union, the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU was still wide open. Once Cameron resigned as prime minister, arch Brexiter Boris Johnson, widely considered to be the next leader of the Conservative party, was reassuring Remain voters that the UK would continue to trade freely with the EU’s single market, something possible only under a so-called soft-Brexit. Just a week after the referendum result, during the very speech in which everyone anticipated Johnson would announce his candidacy, he did the opposite and withdrew from the race. Fellow Brexiter Michael Gove, until then Johnson’s supporter, had decided to run for leader himself. Eventually that left two candidates standing, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May. In an interview with The Times of London, however, Leadsom disqualified herself with a comment many interpreted as her claiming that being a mother made her a better candidate than May, who has no children. Gaffes and strategic mistakes decided who the UK’s next prime minister would be.

Another memorable quote from The History Boys belongs to the only female teacher: “History,” she declares, “is women following behind, with a bucket!” There is some truth to that in May’s case. She inherited the mess that Cameron and Brexit Boys Johnson and Gove left behind. However, today’s Brexit fiasco also bears May’s personal stamp. Perhaps as an attempt to pre-empt suspicion that she, who opposed leaving the EU, would thwart Brexit, or perhaps out of a sense of duty to the electorate, she interpreted the referendum result as demanding the severance of all ties with the EU’s institutions, thus emboldening the hard Brexiters who are now causing much of the parliamentary gridlock in the struggle to approve the negotiated exit deal. Then, too, perhaps more than any negotiation, the one with the EU required a degree of flexibility, bargaining and consensus-building back in the UK, none of these being among May’s strengths.

Humans, Nietzsche thought, are always looking for meaning in their suffering. Grand narratives identifying economic circumstances or a national identity crisis behind Brexit are a way to give meaning to it. But sometimes, the reason we find ourselves in the present is simply the result of a cascade of unrelated and meaningless events—“just one bloody thing after another.” This diagnosis might seem depressing or unnerving to some. But the idea that there was nothing foreordained about Brexit could also be comforting and liberating. Recognizing the accidental nature of the past means realizing that the future is much more open to human intervention and correction than we might otherwise have thought.