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Historians should avoid colourful predictions, however tempting they might seem.
At the moment I’m touring the country with a lecture called Henry VIII And The First Brexit, which compares the king’s eventual clean and triumphant break with the Roman Church with our own messy and humiliating attempts to extricate ourselves from the European Union.
But audiences really want me to talk about the present.
‘What do you think is going to happen?’, they ask. I shrug my shoulders and explain that, since history only works by looking backwards, those historians who pose as prophets are charlatans.
My audiences think I’m copping out, of course – and they are right.
I haven’t always been such a purist. Three years ago, I published a book on Magna Carta to mark the founding document of our Parliamentary constitution, that had been sealed 800 years earlier in 1215.
In holding a medieval king accountable to his subjects – or some of them, at least – Magna Carta was a revolutionary step and is rightly celebrated.
But I ended on a note of caution. All is not well with Britain or our politics, I said. ‘Is it silly to think there is a touch of 1215 – a whiff of revolution – in the air?
And it came true in June 2016, with the decisive referendum vote to reshape our politics once again and leave the European Union.
The referendum was a very British revolution. And it’s been followed by a very British counter-revolution, which shows every sign of succeeding.
Don’t be deceived by the lack of violence or the comparative good manners of those now seizing control. This is a coup, and what is at stake is the nature and legitimacy of Parliament itself.
Ruled by comfortable, smug elites, Parliament is choosing to ignore the ordinary British people as they attempt to hold power to account.
It is no exaggeration to say that British democracy, which stands in direct line with Magna Carta, is now unravelling before us.
If today’s self-satisfied MPs and Ministers – I have already described them as a Parliament of Pygmies – have no time for the voters, they have little time for history, either.
They seem to have forgotten that the original power of our Parliament lay in its claim to represent everybody and not just a few privileged groups, as in continental Europe. (Take for example the Estates General in France or the Cortes Generales in Spain, two early parliaments which promptly died out in the 17th Century.)
They should remember, too, that our Parliament owed its survival to its willingness, with more or less of a struggle, to adapt and remain representative. As time went by, Parliament broadened out to include newly powerful social groups as they appeared.
First came the Reform Act of 1832 which gave the vote to the newly prosperous middle class. This ushered in several decades of dominance by the Liberal Party, which was only broken by the genius of Benjamin Disraeli.
Disraeli, who is the founder of the modern Conservative Party, recognised Conservatism’s natural affinity with ‘the radical masses’.
Disraeli’s intuition was vindicated with the second Reform Act in 1867, the next major parliamentary change, which enfranchised the skilled working man and began the process that turned the Tories into the natural party of government.
Then came the Labour Party, a grand coalition between trade-unionised workers and the middle-class intelligentsia.
And it was the tit-for-tat of Conservative and Labour – two national parties, which between them represented more or less every shade of opinion in the country – that guaranteed the stability of British politics through all the convulsions of the 20th Century.
They kept us free from revolution and prevented the rise of extremist parties, whether of the Left or Right. Until now.
The new Industrial Revolution –the global movement of capital and the rise of technology – is partly to blame. It has cut away at the base of both main political parties.
First to fall was Labour, as the death of mass-production industry and a mass trade union movement left it a hollowed-out shell. As such, it was ripe for the Blairite coup as a tiny, unrepresentative faction took over a once-mighty movement.
The Blairites were contemptuous of the people they supposedly represented and, in particular, of their party membership, who were ritually humiliated by the abolition of Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution.
The Blairites were equally disparaging of history, traditional institutions and the nation itself. They believed in free markets, free love and unlimited immigration and they exhibited an ugly combination of self-righteousness and intolerance.
They were, pretty much to a man and a woman, on the make. And they loved, loved the EU. Finally they tried, and with a large measure of success, to forge a new governing class in their own image.
Where Blair led, David Cameron and his government were eager followers and disciples. Supposedly Conservatives, they hailed Blair as ‘The Master’ and gobbled up his memoirs as a model of how their own government should run.
They inflicted a Clause Four moment on their own Party membership by gratuitously imposing gay marriage.
Above all, Tory modernisation– which can be summarised most neatly as an attempt to make the Tories the party of choice for readers of The Guardian – turned the Conservative Party into a pale imitation of New Labour and rendered its MPs indistinguishable from their supposed opponents on the other side of the House.
The result is that, between them, Blair and Cameron contrived to turn two broad-church, national parties that commanded the allegiance of millions into a pair of narrow, elitist factions.
The true extent of that change had been masked by voters’ tribal loyalty and our first-past-the-post system, which delivers clear, decisive results in General Elections.
But the EU referendum tore apart the veil: it was now the People versus the Parliament.
The People voted 52 to 48 per cent to leave; an estimated 74 per cent of MPs voted to remain.
No representative assembly can sustain such a gulf. Either People or Parliament must give way.
And so it has proved as, in its profound lack of wisdom and in its disregard for the central thread of its own history, Parliament has decided it is the People who should change. Or, rather, be changed.
This is not the first time such a thing has happened. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communist states were ruled by similarly pampered, out-of-touch and privileged elites who, against all the evidence, claimed to represent the People.
The People, shame on them, were ungrateful and in the habit of rebelling. After one such protest, the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote one of the great poems of political dissent, including the satirical lines:
Be simpler in that case if the government
Dissolved the people and Elected another?’
When I first read the poem 50 years ago as a student, I laughed complacently because I knew it couldn’t happen here.
But it has. Since what is Remain or the campaign for a Second Referendum but an attempt to ‘dissolve the people and elect another’?
And where will it end? In other very British revolution? Or something nastier?
I don’t want to prophesy, good historian that I am, but I fear the worst.