I was going to post another bit about the navvies of Elan Valley today, but it seems a bit strange to be discussing late-Victorian municipal water schemes when we’re living through Actual History as we speak. The fall-out from the EU referendum on Thursday continues apace. There has been much talk about historical parallels since, most commonly to Germany on the eve of Hitler, or Britain in the days of Suez, so I won’t add to these. Historical parallels are always slight awkward. For every quote of Marx’s “history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce” there’s the Annalist Marc Bloch’s view that “it is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.”
I’m with Bloch on this, I think; I don’t think any historian, no matter how well-prepared can predict how this is going to turn out. With Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Gibraltar suffering agonies over their borders, I imagine there will be tears. For my own part, I’m very sad about it. I’ve known and worked with friends from all across the EU and it was great; I feel sad that some sort of barrier has been put in between me and the French, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, Greek or Swedish friends, colleagues or students that I’ve known.
The Black Country voted decisively out, to the tune of almost two-thirds. This strikes me as odd for a region that has received a tremendous amount of EU funding, for new roads, museums, education, business and so on. But it’s always been a politically complex place, especially when the most divisive question of the referendum is raised – immigration. Not for the Black Country the mass voting blocs of Merseyside or Glasgow; this is a region which elevated Enoch Powell and Oswald Moseley, where a BNP councillor was elected, where bus drivers struck because of an Indian conductor being permitted a job (see below).
Racism wasn’t the biggest driver of leave voters, I don’t think, but I do think the leave vote vindicates those who are racist. The wave of post-referendum unpleasantness (highlighted on Twitter) is evidence of this. The years of vile bigotry spouted by national newspapers; central cuts leaving public services squeezed to the limit; the alienation from politics (and society in general) caused by years of neglect by politics; the inability to express individual political will under a dodgy voting system; the failure of politicians to present a decent, positive counterpoint; even the alienation caused across society by the abdication of power from government to the unseen “invisible hands” of international markets; all these played their parts. What to do next therefore becomes a huge, huge problem that can seem insurmountable – especially by our politicians, busy proving to the public that they have elected a group of six-year-olds. Perhaps in the short term, the first thing is to love thy neighbour. Regardless of your vote, your politics or your outlook on life, this world is horrible enough without people hating people based on the colour of their skin or the language they speak.