Brexit and the collapse of Empires From Byzantium to Vladimir Lenin, what the Leavers should learn from history

in Referendum by

It’s fair to say you’ve seen everything when you read the current Lord Chancellor in a

Peter Frankopan
Peter Frankopan

Conservative government look to Lenin for inspiration and for quotations. Those thinking about the vote in next week’s Referendum should consider the essential question, ‘famously explained’, wrote Michael Gove, ‘by Lenin to his Communist Party Congress in 1921.’ Urging readers of The Times to vote for Brexit, he implored, ‘it is the question we should be asking ourselves as we reflect on whether to Leave or Remain. Who is in control?’

One might be excused for thinking that given that Michael Gove was until recently Minister for Education, he would know what Lenin and his comrades were willing to do to ensure a better world for the future: Russia in the early 1920s turned into a version of the apocalypse, with mass starvation, acts of wanton violence that are difficult to read and repeat nearly a century later and economic collapse that forced even the most committed Bolsheviks to realise things had gone wrong.

Presumably as former Minister for Education, he would be familiar too with the battle cry that galvanised those who were convinced that Russia could be a better place than it had been under the Tsars. ‘Turn the imperialist war’, ran the slogan, ‘into a civil war!’ Forget about the rest of the world, in other words; turn your guns on your own side, divide the country – and thence take control.

Michael Gove’s performance on Question Time does little to suggest that the Brexit ring-leader has quite the charisma or fleet-footedness of Lenin or Trotsky. But his choice of exemplar is nevertheless telling – especially set alongside Nigel Farage’s put-down of Bob Geldof as ‘multimillionaire Mr Geldof’. Going in to the last week before the vote, class war is the name of the game. Who could have thought that it would have been thought up by white, middle-class men who are themselves part of the elite. But then they said that about Lenin too – Vladimir Ulyanov, hereditary nobleman of the Russian empire.

If Gove and his band of merry men had paid more attention in history lessons at school (did I mention already that Michael Gove had been Minister for Education?), they would have learned something about the pattern of the collapse of empires. Empires always fall when their peripheries try to break away. The themes that have dominated the debate and on which the vote will turn are those of migration, economic contraction, and the conviction that those involved in political decision making are inept, invisible and distant.

One might expect Boris Johnson, usually so keen to show off his knowledge of the classical world, to recognise the tell-tale signs that led to the last occasion of Britain’s exit from the mainstream of European politics in the 5th century, when the unfurling of the western Roman empire plunged most of continental Europe into what used to be called The Dark Ages. Before the last Brexit, elites lived in magnificent villas and gathered for smart dinner parties. After it, few could – or did – build using stone. Deprived of the oxygen of being part of large inter-continental trading systems, life became about the simple act of survival. Take back control? More like opt back into living in the swamps.

It was the same story with the Byzantium that dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for a millennium, chronically weakened by peripheral zones breaking off to promote their own identities and return sovereignty to the local people – ending in failure all round: empire and appendage in turn were devoured by bigger, unified rivals, picked off in bite sizes. Same too for the Mongols; or the Aztecs; or the Ottomans; or the Austro-Hungarians; all empires go the same way.

Even Britain. A century ago, a quarter of the world was coloured pink, and much more besides rosy with friendliness towards a power that was the least of all evils, and in some ways, even positively progressive. Retreat cost millions of lives in India and Pakistan; it went only marginally better in Africa, while six decades on, Cyprus is still divided, living in hope and trying to find a way beyond the traumatic past. And Canada and Australia? Well, both ‘benefitted’ (if that word can even be used) because we managed to kill or displace the indigenous populations.

Europe is not perfect. Nor is the European Union. Federations, empires, groups of diverse peoples with common interests always struggle and groan under the pressure of storm clouds. Those clouds are particularly intense right now, the result of a perfect storm of dislocation and terror in the Near East and of a chronic financial crisis that has seen the EU fine RBS and other banks billions for acting as ‘illegal cartels’ but our own authorities not send a single director to prison.

Europe has had its time in the sun. Four centuries ago, the twin discoveries of a sea route across the Atlantic and round the southern tip of Africa to India put Europe at the centre of the world for the first time. Before then, this continent was a regional backwater, at the wrong end of the Eurasian landmass. The world is changing around us as the east rises again. Being on our own not only weakens us; it weakens those around us.

But what Michael Gove and Vladimir Lenin failed to understand is that there is a price to pay for the bloody-minded pursuit of a dream. Or then, maybe they did. How middle England can fall for it is beyond me. History does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, but it often rhymes.

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is published by Bloomsbury (UK)

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