Brexiteers draw on events of 1600 years ago, betting history will repeat

Among the blessings of a life well lived was my early discovery of Paul Johnson, a top journalist and editor who became a peerless historical writer. I’ve consumed well over half the 40 books he blessed us with, ranging from brilliant tomes on Jewish and American history through to his deeply reflective The Quest For God.

It was Johnson who taught my younger self that journalists and historians are in the same business. Both, he argued, “are involved in the discovery and elucidation of truth – that is, the search for facts which matter and their arrangement in significant form.” So it is to Johnson’s history of the English, The Offshore Islanders, that I turned to look past the noise of Brexit.

Written in 1972, it provides a heartening parallel for those panicked by the consequences of what the UK is going through as it struggles with the divorce of its 45-year marriage to the European Union. The last time Britain cut ties with Europe was in the year 410 CE when Rome was sacked by the Goths, forcing the last colonising legionnaire to go back across the channel.

Johnson writes that Rome’s withdrawal was followed by a century of “unprecedented growth of prosperity in Britain…..which derived all the benefits of economic contacts with a great Continental market with none of the disadvantages of economic and political subjection.” Brexiteers dream of a similar result. With end-March fast approaching, we’ll know soon enough whether history is likely to repeat.