First written in December 2018. New personal response below.
Almost 100 years ago, T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest literary minds of the 20th century, claimed that the seventeenth century had set in motion certain processes from which we have never recovered. Remarkably, as Brexit discussions rumble on, he may still have a point.
Writing in 1921 on the metaphysical poets, Eliot sensed a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ – a divide between the emotions and reason that had infiltrated English culture around the time of the English Civil War. This dissociation was aggravated by John Milton and John Dryden, he said. ‘The two most powerful poets of the century.’
Following the Second World War, Eliot returned to Milton, a man at the heart of the English Revolution. This time, he makes a bolder claim – that ‘the Civil War of the seventeenth century… has never been concluded’. ‘I question whether any serious civil war ever does end’, he adds.
In the decades since, we haven’t even reached any clear consensus on the terminology we should use to describe those turbulent decades of the seventeenth century. The antagonism surrounding civil wars rumbles on every way possible. But history is so often destined to repeat itself. The clouds of unrest are building, and British politics once again faces threats of civil unrest.
What of Revolutions?
Are we seeing the birth of another revolution here?
An early influence for my work on Andrew Marvell (another figure of fascination for Eliot) was John McWilliams, who was completing a doctoral thesis at Bristol when I arrived as an undergraduate. I was particularly fascinated by the way he tackled the term ‘revolution’.
For McWilliams, ‘revolution’ was a contentious label that had somehow consumed the English Civil Wars. In doing so, it injected new political momentum into a hitherto aimless orthodoxy. Seventeenth-century specialists began offering correctives to former critical traditions they deemed to be perniciously right wing – thus applying political incitement (and everything that incurs) to literary issues.
Furthermore, one standout characteristic of a revolution is that its proponents recognise and embrace their part in the overthrow of an old order. For many seventeenth-century historians, the execution of Charles I in 1649 was not a planned or automatic outcome of the civil wars, and there was no conceived ‘new order’ in preparation for that outcome.
It’s when we think of it in those terms that similarities with the current Brexit situation begin to arise. Firstly, Brexit is not solely a hard-right initiative. It’s a divide that is not easily categorised by standard political ideologies and not one that can be easily reconciled. Whatever the outcome from here, disappointment and unrest are inevitable.
Secondly, there is the role of Brexiters. While the motives for voting and/or championing the UK’s exit from the European Union are varied, Brexiters have assumed the role of democratic revolutionaries – able to witness their part in the attempted overthrow of a previous order, and even to revel in it.
And thirdly, though beheadings are less likely than they were in 1649, Brexit is extremely likely to end a number of political careers and maybe even lead to criminal indictments.
Confidence is shaky; it’s looking like victory by defeat. And the clock is ticking towards a major political termination. Might we end up likening this to a 21st-century Interregnum? What sort of leader is ready to assume that challenge?
Postscript: March 2019
When Iain Duncan Smith says that the majority voted for a no-deal Brexit, I know my family are part of the proof he is wrong.
I’ve been very political lately, which is a little out of character. In the past, I would have channelled my frustrations through my research – by thinking about Marvell’s relationship with Europe, for example, or early modern ideas of ‘democracy’. But dabbling with this last year didn’t provide what I was looking for. You can’t just hide from this. It’s personal.
I was born and raised in Sunderland, one of the poster cities of Brexit and the first to announce in favour of it. My family were Leavers. They didn’t all vote, but that was their inclination. Why was this? My grandparents get their news from right-wing tabloids. Force of habit. My parents were seduced by the main Vote Leave campaigns: one warning of an increase in migration through Turkey; another promising additional money for the NHS, on which they are heavily reliant.
They are not racist, ideologues, or unreasonable. Their biggest crime was being gullible. If they could vote again, they would all vote to Remain – unquestioningly. I can’t ask any more than that. In fact, I’m proud. It’s not their fault that these campaigns seduced voters – many more than just my family.
So, in the heart of Brexit city, no less, that’s six voters who have utterly changed their minds. Not narrowly-persuaded. Not with lingering doubts. It’s “fuck Brexit”. My mum claims the first referendum cannot have been democratic as she voted under false promises. I don’t think that’s an invalid complaint. Do I think the 2% swing could be overturned? On this basis, undoubtedly.
What frustrates me more than anything is that my family and people like them continue to be used as pawns in an ideological battleground. It’s become increasingly common for ideologues to summon anonymous numbers to their own specific cause. “It’s what 17.4 million voted for.” No – it’s what you voted for.
When Iain Duncan Smith says that the majority voted for a no-deal Brexit, I know my family are part of the proof he is wrong. I feel injustice. Not for myself, but for them, who were smart enough to see the light and brave enough to admit they got it wrong.
Now we’ve all got to suffer for that. And it could get worse. Since the referendum, I’ve entered a long-term relationship with a European lady. We don’t yet know what the outcome will be for EU citizens’ rights. We only know so far that it’s been made hopelessly difficult to apply for settled status. Applicants currently need to pay a fee and somehow get their hands on an Android device.
She is less worried than I am, and I hope that ends up justified. Only, I’ve lived in a settled protectionist country before, and it unnerved me. Britain is currently an unsettled state with a ruffled and ruthless machismo. Not a good mix.
People can be afraid of change – but it’s often harder to make an argument for continuity. There’s always a champion of the grass being greener on the other side, and often enough discontent to build momentum for it.
Who knows how this will end? Frustration, no doubt, for many who feel they did the right thing, but also for some who believe they were unfairly led down a wrong path and find themselves unable to recover.
A revolution on very, very bad grounds.