It would hardly now be surprising if the ranks of those mustered round the clock at Westminster to air their views about Brexit were to be joined next week by one of those who has the most right to feel aggrieved about these proceedings: History. Throughout the process, poor History has been having words roughly crammed into its mouth by all and sundry. Angela Merkel is said to have done this on Thursday, warning Emmanuel Macron that history would judge the EU harshly if it failed to handle things sympathetically. Yet Mrs Merkel is at least a great world figure.
The same can hardly be said for the backbench Conservative member Peter Bone, of whom History’s team of advisers (Herodotus, Jules Michelet and AJP Taylor) have said they have no knowledge. Mr Bone, others may remember, assured the prime minister in the Commons this week that History would condemn her for a failure to deliver Brexit – thus putting History on the opposite side to the many remainers who declare with a matching certainty that History will denounce her if she fails to save us from it.
Not that this practice is new. Tony Blair once claimed to have felt the hand of history on his shoulder, a contention for which, we gather, History might well have wished to take him to law, denying any such harassment, were it not that its legal advisers (Cicero, Edward Coke and Clarence Darrow) had advised that the courts would never be willing to hear such a case. Nor is it confined to politics: those who felt an irrational certainty on the issue of mixed allegiances among international footballers, a Guardian columnist wrote this week, were “likely to find themselves on the wrong side of history”. Even apparent slurs against the good name of History over the years, such as “History teaches us nothing” (a misquotation of Hegel), “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Karl Marx), and, in Shaw’s play The Devil’s Disciple, “History will tell lies as usual”, can be set aside as the speculations of lesser authorities rather than History’s own.
History, the Guardian understands, sees rather more sense in the saying attributed to Zhou Enlai, who, asked by Henry Kissinger what he made of the French revolution, replied that it was too early to tell. (Though even there, sources close to History say, the Chinese leader may have misunderstood Kissinger’s question.) The French revolution occurred as recently as 1789, and no firm judgment on the rights and wrongs of it is likely to be arrived at for least a further millennium. After all, more distant events have yet to be resolved to general satisfaction: the origins of the English civil war, for example; the fate of the princes at the hands of Richard III; or the origins of the universe – History’s advisers still despair of any consensus there. History, in other words, would rather be regarded as unfinished business than as a form of sustenance to people unsure of the case they are making. If given the chance of an interview on Abingdon Green with Jon Snow or Emily Maitlis, might History make some progress is stemming this insalubrious practice? Time will tell. For the moment, it’s rather too early to say.