Swiss-Irish economics professor Kevin O'Rourke explains Brexit, focusing on English and European history.
A Short History of Brexit is essentially divided into two halves. The first half examines Britain's history within Europe, especially its relationship and attitudes to the continent. It also builds up a complex picture of all the treaties and agreements that have been signed onto over the decades, resulting in a complicated web of economic integration, delivering many benefits. The promotion of free trade within Europe, however, wasn't always primarily about economics. Another key goal was political, to hopefully avoid devastating future conflicts.
The British have always remained ambivalent about the European project. For many decades Britain hoped to maintain trade within the Commonwealth, with countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain clung to fantasies of empire. Nonetheless, the European economy powered along, making trade with Europe inevitable. This rankled in some quarters. To highlight this ambivalence, O'Rourke gives the example of Margaret Thatcher. She did more than any other politician to sign Britain up to European free trade, all the while remaining virulently anti-Europe.
The second part of the book looks at recent history, since the referendum. Possible explanations for why the Leave vote succeeded are teased out. It's noted that regions deeply affected by austerity were more likely to vote leave, even though this was government policy, not EU policy. Unscrupulous politicians, who were unschooled in the intricacies of what Brexit would actually mean, campaigned hard to leave. Boris Johnson is a case in point. He wasn't sure on which side he stood – remain or leave – until the very last minute. He seemed to enjoy the politicking, rather than have a policy.
The sections that deal with the technical aspects of Brexit are fascinating – and horrifying. So many responsible ministers didn't have the most basic grasp of the rules and frameworks that governed EU trade, hence found themselves dumbstruck by reality. And this doesn't even take into account the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a complex difficulty never discussed during the Brexit campaign, but a terrible hangover for the day after the euphoria of winning. This is the great tragicomedy of Brexit. The British thought they could magically enjoy all the benefits of the EU, and pluck out the unpalatable bits. There is even a new expression that encapsulates this thinking: cakeism. That is, having your economic cake and eating it too.
It's quite clear that Kevin O'Rourke is of the remain persuasion, and there are some sections where this bias comes through clearly. Overall, however, this is a cool-headed and informative study of a rare phenomenon, a country that decides to cut its nose off despite its face.
A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop, by Kevin O'Rourke. Penguin $35
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books