Brexit: A very modern revolution

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Brexit: A very modern revolution

Brexit is a modern day revolution, and the High Court’s decision last week to allow Parliament to vote on Article 50 is exactly that: a counter-revolutionary strike aimed at derailing it.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of our revolution was an exaggeration. Or so it seems. Politicians and talking heads reassured us before and after the 23rd June that a vote to leave the EU would be revolutionary. It certainly felt like it might be true, as a Prime Minister fell on his sword and political parties destroyed themselves from the inside out. What else could this be, some of us muttered, but a bloodless revolution? Then calm began to return, and people wondered, what next?

Well, now we know. The counter-revolutionaries have made their first strike. Let us be clear about this: Thursday’s High Court decision to allow Parliament to vote on Article 50 is exactly that, a counter-revolutionary strike aimed at derailing Brexit. Dramatic language it may be, but whilst the claims of ‘democratic process’ are being screeched loudly from the roof tops, only a fool would believe them. Of course, this is not the end of the Brexit Revolution, but it is a key event in the narrative, a moment that will be regarded by future historians as a defining lense to look back on the previous five months. Think of it as the cliffhanger series finale to Season One of the Brexit Revolution. If you found the end of Season Six of The Walking Dead too much to bear, I’m afraid this will be even more stressful. I suppose that it may be a consolation that you won’t have to wait a year for Season Two.

Whilst many of us who voted for Brexit chose to trust the Remain campaign’s promise/threat of immediate and glorious release from the shackles of the EU, it comes as a disappointment but with little surprise that events have taken this turn. As we know, revolutions are never that clean, nor that simple, and are never, ever, guaranteed to be successful.

Historically, after the initial vehemence of rebellion, revolutions have a tendency to reach a three way fork in the road. This fork takes the form of a moment, a moment when the course of events is decided and to change from the resulting path becomes increasingly difficult. The first fork leads to complete and utter defeat. As in the Irish rebellion of 1789, the Indian Mutiny, or the numerous slave rebellions in the southern US states before the Civil War. Crushed brutally, thoroughly, and completely, the revolution is remembered as a ‘rebellion,’ a revolution that failed. Often this stores up trouble for the future, but for the time being it ensures the established order is secure and all powerful. If parliament decides to go against the will of the people, we may end up here.

The second fork is where a revolution becomes particularly nasty. Usually caused by a combination of unstoppable momentum and the coincidence of circumstances, the established order is completely overthrown, as in the French Revolution of 1789, or the Russian Revolution of 1917. This normally happens when those in power have refused to work with the demands of the revolution or its leaders, instead opting to try and lead the revolution down the first fork. If it is badly handled, and the dynamism of the revolution is too strongly against the establishment, the force of change becomes too strong to resist, and many become swept away in the flood of popular anger which is unleashed. This is the other alternative if Parliament votes against activating Article 50.

The third fork has many side paths and diversions. It is the route the Prime Minister is sensibly attempting to take. Here, the initial shock waves of rebellion are absorbed by the establishment, stopping a full blown revolution in its tracks.  The establishment then acts a little to allow for the grievances of the revolutionaries whilst keeping a firm grip on power. Often the changes enacted stop the label of revolution being applied to events, as with the Great Reform Act and other 19th Century British reforms. On other occasions, such as with the Glorious Revolution, the establishment itself embraces the term of ‘revolutionary.’

On both sides of the debate, many have portrayed Brexit as a revolution. Is it? The decision of the High Court last Thursday may be regarded as the moment when we begin to find out what type of revolution we are in, or if it is just a failed rebellion against the power of the EU.

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  • Neil M Jopson
    Neil M Jopson
    Neil Jopson is a freelance writer and historian. He has a particular interest in the development of ideas and ideology, and is a devotee of the concept that man, not history, repeats itself.
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