Written by Will McLoughlin

To effectively determine how knowledge of the past can help us face the challenges of the twenty-first century, it is pertinent to consider if it is possible to learn from the past at all. Author L.P Hartley wrote, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”; in other words, the world of the past is vastly removed in its structures, values and intentions from that which we inhabit today. There is no doubt that there has been immense social change between historical eras. Further, past systems of governance were entirely different to that which we experience today; democracy is, on the whole, a relatively modern adoption. These differences can blur lessons which could be learnt from the past. However, the question remains: do these vast differences render historical comparison obsolete? 

In my view, the answer is no. History is littered with instances when individuals or groups looked to the past to inform their actions, often to great avail. For example, the foundation of the United Nations (UN) in the mould of its predecessor; the League of Nations. The founders of the UN knowingly avoided the structural pitfalls which led to the failure of the League while keeping the fundamental aim of preserving world peace through open diplomacy. Unlike the League, the UN has a standing army; three times as many members in its Assembly, including the previously absent superpowers and it employs a popular voting system as opposed a unanimous voting system.

These changes in structure undoubtedly led to the creation of an improved body; while the UN is by no means perfect, it is a considerable and clear advance on its predecessor. These adaptations were made by looking at past failures to prepare for the future. As a Whig historian would argue, even if one doesn’t accept history to be useful as an active guide for the future, there is no doubt that through the natural progression of time humanity develops by learning from its own failures in a process akin to evolution. It is also true that history is full of examples of people who failed to learn from the past, usually to their detriment. One regularly cited example being Hitler’s ignorance of Napoleon’s plight in invading Russia, a feat which he attempted, and failed, in a similar fashion. However, this is not to say that we cannot learn from the past, only that we often do not. Perhaps due to arrogance, ignorance or a damaging combination or both, many fail to recognise lessons from the past which rarely leads to success. 

One significant challenge of the twenty-first century will be Britain’s departure from, and future relationship with, the European Union. I will consider a British perspective and, later, a European one. The balance of European power is a key element of global politics; thus, this reshuffle will have widespread ramifications.  To prepare for this challenge one could look back to the English Reformation of 1534, an event fundamentally similar to Brexit. Both were acts of separation and a rejection of a European institution deemed to be overreaching in their control, suppressing English/British sovereignty. In the earlier instance this was, a corrupt Catholic Church and in the modern one the EU, deemed by its opponents to be an undemocratic and languid body.

In the Preamble to the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome, Thomas Cromwell, a proponent of English Reformation “manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire… governed by one supreme head and king” which appears strikingly similar to the rhetoric to opponents of the EU in twenty-first century Britain. Given the extensive similarities, it would seem that useful comparisons can be made which would aid preparations for the challenge of Britain’s departure of the EU.

However, while both scenarios seem immensely similar there are key differences. For instance, England’s 1534 split from Europe centred around theology. Since 1534, ‘Eurosceptics’ have swapped religious argument for economics and discussion over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation has subsided from the ‘European debate’. Further, the break from Rome was carried out on the whim of an autocratic monarch desiring more personal liberty rather than on the verdict of a discontented electorate. Ultimately, I would argue that due to these crucial differences, there are limited lessons to learn for Britain’s contemporary departure from Europe. 

Despite this, it has some use in acting as a warning of the risk of sustained divisions, therefore demonstrating the need for unification. The events of 1534 caused divisions which lasted into the next century. As exemplified by the 1605 plot to kill King James whose policies were intended to suppress the Catholic faith. Similar division now must be reconciled quickly.

My next comparison explores the lessons the EU delegates could learn from the British Peace of Paris negotiators. The EU’s circumstances are remarkably similar to the situation which Britain found themselves in during the 1782/3 Peace of Paris negotiations. In 1782/3 America were departing from an economic union (British Empire), albeit a disharmonious, authoritarian one, not entirely dissimilar to Britain’s departure from the European economic union. Initially, there was a stalemate as both sides refused to compromise due to their beliefs that the interests of their nations were entirely distinct from one another.

However, the tide turned in the negotiations; the newly-elected Shelburne saw the opportunity to turn American independence from a humiliating, costly loss into an opportunity for a future free – trading relationship. Historians Alvord and Harlow argue that unlike his mercantilist contemporaries, Shelburne was inspired by Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ published only 7 years earlier. He saw trade not as an extension of a forceful colonial relationship or a ‘zero-sum game’ but as a chance for mutual prosperity; he was therefore willing to accept large concessions during the negotiations. The British delegation relinquished any future right to rule in America; handed over the Trans-Appalachian region and north-western territories and allowed America fishing rights off Canadian territories. Both nations honoured their debts and retained access to trade in the Mississippi. These terms formed a large part of the Treaty of Paris. 

One could argue that these concessions were simply as a result of the overwhelming British defeat which left their negotiators at the mercy of John Jay and his colleagues. However, the nature of the agreements signed with France and the Netherlands were much more favourable to the British and involved no major concessions. This suggests that had they wanted to, the British could have imposed more favourable terms on America, which remained, after all, a relatively unestablished country on the global stage. Therefore, it is fair to argue that this British trade-off in favour of promoting future commerce was to a large extent a choice. A choice which arguably created the basis for the relations between the two nations ever since.

The Anglo-American alliance has been a dominant duumvirate which wields world-controlling power. It is difficult to overstate the importance the relationship nurtured and fostered by Shelburne and his delegates; although ironically, he was removed from office at the time for returning with what were ostensibly unfavourable terms.  Shelburne’s bargain has contributed to the British economy, defence and security on endless occasions. The USA remains Britain’s largest export market (among individual countries) and a key economic partner.

However, the relationship in question wasn’t always a smooth one, for instance, British troops entered into a conflict in America and subsequently burned down the White House in 1814. It also wouldn’t be fair to say that the Treaty of Paris alone facilitated the growth of said alliance; it undoubtedly needed periodical revitalisations such the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 and many more recent examples. 

That being said, the American-Anglo alliance, for the vast majority of its existence, has been a prosperous and smooth one; the trend for diplomacy, trade and peace was at least temporally kickstarted by the Treaty of Paris. 

So, what can be learned from this instance for those tasked with a similar responsibility today; negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union. With the benefit of hindsight, they should see that instead of choosing stubbornness, granting fair or even generous terms to Britain would be mutually beneficial. As was the case for Britain, granting a departing nation favourable terms might seem like a short-term defeat but will inevitably encourage trade, friendship and mutual prosperity. This can only be a good thing for those involved.

Overall, while it is undoubtedly a difficult feat, global leaders would be well advised to look back to the English Reformation and the Peace of Paris negotiations to help them tackle the 21st century challenge of Brexit. If they do so, I’d argue they would realise the need to tackle domestic divisions to not allow them to fester or develop in society and secondly to favour a generous trade deal as a sign of friendship and promote trade.

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  • Chris says:

    A very interesting perspective. We often dont consider the past enough when making decisions.

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