From rhetoric to reality: US history shows how Brexit will end

Aidan Courtney
11 min readFeb 23, 2020
Photo by Habib Ayoade on Unsplash

There is no need to study the past if the times we live in are unprecedented. We can face the future with childlike optimism, unfettered by experience. Knowledge need not spoil the party.

The UK’s departure from the EU is a first. No country has ever left the Union before. In the coming months, the UK and the EU will negotiate a trade agreement which reduces their commercial, legal and social alignment. Rather than agree on how to converge from two known starting points, negotiators will try to accommodate future divergence of unknown scope. Another first.

In these unique circumstances, Brexit’s proponents urge fellow citizens to look forward to a bright future of their imagining, rather than look back to past experience. That’s good salesmanship. But strip away the surface features of Brexit, the membership of the EU, the jingoistic Rule Britannia language, and what remains is constitutional change. The way Britain is governed, and the rights of its citizens, are being changed. This may be a rare event, but it is not so exceptional that history cannot show us how Brexit will play out.

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1920, the US enacted the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to its Constitution. Each secured the necessary support of a two thirds majority in both houses of Congress and were ratified by more than three quarters of the individual states. By year’s end, Prohibition was in force and women had the vote. But these siblings had very different fates. Their subsequent failure and success are a reminder that without continued and widespread public support, seemingly permanent political change can be short lived.

Playing to the fears of a declining subset of the population, turbo-charged by expert tactics, but never the “settled will of the people” describes both last century’s campaign for Prohibition in the US and this century’s campaign for Brexit in the UK. So the fate of Prohibition, a campaign that succeeded but a policy which failed, may be a portent of Brexit’s fate, as it moves from rhetoric to reality. If history were to repeat itself with peculiar precision, the UK would re-join the EU in December 2033.

Even if people don’t change, populations do.

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Aidan Courtney

Founder and director of technology companies. I write for pleasure on the big issues of the day.