The world is so full of news – natural calamities, wars, crime, elections, and so on – that there is not much time to dwell on any one story. Unless it’s a huge mess like Watergate that went on forever. But British history is very long. The Romans were there and Londondinium was already a busy place even before the time of Christ. One emperor – Hadrian – built a wall to keep out the Scots. Donald Trump was not the first to think of doing that. But perhaps the first major story affecting Britain’s fortunes was the Roman exit from Britain. That was historic.
Then came invasions of the Angles and the Saxons – from Germany. The language of Olde English is the same as Old German. Then the Vikings powered up and parts of England were ruled by the Danes. But the second major story in British history was the Norman invasion in 1066. For a long time after that, England and France combined into one nation, divided by the English channel.
So the German influence started to fade as a lot of French crept in. Soon this creole of German and French hardened into a new language called English. It was later carried across the ocean along with other languages like Spanish, French and German, but English prevailed in North America. Mostly. In many dialects. Leading George Bernard Shaw to comment that England and America are two countries separated by the same language!
It is somehow ironic that the European Union has a single currency but nations have kept their respective languages. Salzburg is said to now have more translators than diplomats. The EU is not a melting pot like the United States, although Spanish-creep is now a fact of life in North America. The third major news story must have been the signing of the Magna Carta. There was this emerging tug-of-war between the “divine right of kings” (ruling by decree) and consultation with citizens through their representatives. This would take centuries to perfect, but it was the dawn of Democracy in Britain.
Perhaps the fourth major story in British history was the defeat of the Spanish Armada? By this time, Spain had become the super-power of the world, and England was only in its adolescence. This maritime defeat set England on its way to a long era in which Britannia ruled the waves. In due course this made possible an Empire on which the sun never set – all around the world. Genghis Khan had ruled the largest land empire in history, but his sea campaigns to Japan and Java fizzled out. Whereas the British Empire was connected by the seven seas.
The fifth major story was the invasion of William of Orange from Holland. Yes it was a military invasion, but he was basically welcomed by Londoners in exchange for a deposed king who was messing around with parliament again. William had the good prudence to decline being crowned just because of a military victory. He asked that parliament be re-convened, and invite him to rule. This was the basis of a definitive rapprochement between royalty and parliament – an unwritten Constitution.
Now to make a long story short, the sixth major story was the Battle of Britain. Since the invasions of the Saxons, the Danes and the Normans, England had not really been invaded again. The Spanish had tried and failed. Well, OK, William came over from Holland but he was married to the defeated king’s sister, so it was really by invitation that he landed. Hitler decided to give it a go in 1940, but was repelled. “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” was the way Winston Churchill described Britain’s air superiority. The threat of German invasion was repelled.
And surely the emergence of a common market first, followed by a common currency and the European Union, was a huge news story. The seventh major news story is that Britain agreed to join in, well sort of – while keeping its own currency. It wanted to see the EU succeed, but was never sure that it fit. This wobbling has gone on for forty years, in an era when population growth has taken off and current events are covered by instant, global media.
It is not an exaggeration to put Brexit alongside these other seven defining trendings in British history. On its own, the UK will have the fifth largest economy in the world, and plenty of linkages – to the Continent, to the Commonwealth, and to America. Theresa May has worked feverishly to make it happen, and is still as optimistic as ever that it can succeed – on the terms that she has negotiated. There are skeptics who don’t see it ever happening, and Brextremists who would rather go “cold turkey” into isolation, without having to pay any alimony.
The media is treating Brexit like just another news story. It’s not. It is monumental. It is an earthquake. It is more than historical, it is awesome. Whichever way it pans out, there is once again that feeling that so many will owe it to so few – that is, to the negotiating team. Yet Theresa May’s team is not being treated with the esteem of military heroes, even though they are pulling off a huge shake-up… diplomatically.
The majority voted for Brexit. In a Democracy, the majority should rule. When Solon of Athens invented Democracy, his sense was that the only way that military power, or the oligarchy, or despots could be overpowered, was by Majority rule. He was onto something. We are now watching history in the making, peacefully, publicly and professionally. On TV, in the comfort of our living room. There is progress as human history moves forward.
Chuck Stephens is Executive Director for the UNEMBEZA Desk which is part of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.