From the start of the American Civil War until just before it ended, there was no doubt amongst informed opinion in Britain as to how it would end. “I suppose,” the Foreign Secretary, Earl Russell, wrote to the British Ambassador in Washington, “that the break-up of the Union is now inevitable.” The Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, agreed. It was all but impossible, he said, that the North could win.
Newspapers were equally certain as to the outcome. The Economist, which supported the North, declared that “everyone knows and admits that the secession is an accomplished, irrevocable, fact… Even if the North were sure of an easy and complete victory – short, of course, of actual subjugation of the South (which no one dreams of) – the war which was to end in such a victory would still be … an objectless and unprofitable folly.”
The Liverpool Mercury, which appeared to hope that both sides would lose the war, was equally confident in its predictions. “Disunion is an accomplished and irreversible fact,” it said in August 1862. Two months later, the war had become a “useless struggle, in which [the North has] not the remotest chance of success”. By April 1863, “the independence of the South is now merely a question of time” and, at the end of that year, “the conquest of the South still appears to us to be impossible.” In June 1864, “[Grant] has very little chance of taking Richmond and none whatever of conquering the Southern Confederacy.” Even as late as September 1864, the paper thought that “the war can only end in one way, namely, in the establishment of the independence of the Confederate States.”
Informed commentators who supported the Union were equally certain. Francis Hamilton, a partner of Brown, Shipley & Co in Liverpool and a strong Northern sympathiser, wrote to its associated company in New York that “the writer believes as strongly as he believes anything that the conquering of a country like the Southern States … is an utter impossibility.” William Neill, cotton commentator and fervent abolitionist, admitted that he “entirely disbelieved in the possibility of the conquest of the Southern States and a reconstruction of the Union”.
One thing unites all these commentators: they were utterly mistaken. None of them was stupid or uninformed. Yet they all concluded that a Northern victory was not just unlikely or difficult to achieve, but impossible.
So when, now, we read that it will be impossible to achieve any sort of Brexit deal, or that the consequences of Brexit will inevitably be catastrophic, we should bear in mind that today’s commentators, intelligent and informed though they also are, may also be utterly, hopelessly wrong. They may not, of course. But history should teach us to be wary of statements of future inevitability, however unanimous.
The American Civil War should teach us something else about Brexit: something that has been overlooked before, during and since the referendum. Behind the confident predictions of Union failure lay a narrative of assumptions: that, because the military task facing the North was so difficult (which indeed it was), a successful war would require so much Union money and cost so many Union lives that the people in the Northern States would not support its continuation, or consent to pay the taxes needed to fight it.
Wrong again. It proved to be not only the Confederacy that believed that some things were more important than money or lives. Northerners believed it too. Whatever The Economist thought, for them a continuation of the war was not “an objectless and unprofitable folly”.
Since the referendum, we have been reminded constantly by bien pensant commentators, mainly in London, of the irony that the parts of the country that voted most heavily to leave would be the parts to suffer most from Brexit economically. The subtext (never stated, for obvious reasons, but heavily implied) is that these people were too stupid, and/or too uninformed, and/or too misled, to appreciate their own self-interest.
But what if, unlike the bien pensant commentators, these voters were also motivated by something other than their immediate economic self-interest? What if they felt that, after years of neglect by successive governments, things were already so bad that they couldn’t get a great deal worse? What if they felt that their short-term outlook was so dismal under any scenario that they should vote for what they wanted for their country in the long term?
When Jacob Rees-Mogg said that “the overwhelming opportunity for Brexit is over the next 50 years,” he was ridiculed. Why was he even thinking of a timescale like that? Who could possibly tell what would happen in 50 years’ time? When I have attempted to defend to friends, not his specific prediction but his mode of thinking, I too have been ridiculed.
Yet most people (including, I have to say, my friends) would agree with the proposition that there is too much short-termism in politics and that one of the jobs of politicians is to think about the future. It is depressing to think that, on a rare occasion when a politician actually does this, he is derided.
As far as I know, there has been no in-depth analysis of why people in the semi-derelict left-behind parts of Britain voted to leave. But I would not discount the possibility that they were perfectly well aware of the turmoil that Brexit would cause, of the immediate economic harm it might do, but decided to cast their vote on other grounds. (And not necessarily on racist grounds, as we are also constantly told.)
There is a precedent, after all. We did not need to fight World War II. It was not a calculation of economic self-interest that led us into war. In fact, it was the opposite. And, despite the fact that the war cost us most of our residual wealth and power, I have yet to meet anyone who regretted the choice. As it was for Northerners in the American Civil War, some things are more important than money, more important than lives.
I make no predictions for Brexit. I am not saying that today’s experts are wrong, on whichever side of Brexit they stand. But I do not assume that they are right, no matter how vehement their views. Tomorrow never knows. And we can never know tomorrow.