What Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series teaches us about Brexit
In the long view, history tends to win.
In Foundation, Isaac Asimov’s famously unfilmable science fiction epic, “psychohistory” is a fictitious discipline combining history, sociology and maths. The idea is that the history of any society with a large enough population can be predicted, in the same way that the behaviour of a gas can: you may not know the path of any particular molecule, but the dispersal of a big enough group will follow mathematical laws.
This theory, in which events are so often determined by faceless social forces and the power of the mob, is one thing that has rendered Foundation unfilmable for so long. Another is the way it doesn’t really have characters, just people who stand around discussing historical forces and then, with annoying frequency, immediately vanish from the narrative because the next chapter is set half a century later. The Apple TV version, which is approaching the end of its first season, deals with these problems in a variety of ways, including “inventing a load of extra plot" (which is not inherently against the spirit of the books) and “giving some of our heroes supernatural powers” (which I increasingly fear might be). I’m still enjoying it, but it’s in the way I enjoyed the stunning paintings that make up the covers of Asimov’s books, rather than the actual words within them. I sometimes wonder if it’d be more fun if it was just pretty pictures and I was stoned.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this in relation to Brexit.
That’s basically the Leave campaign, right there. Image: Apple TV.
A few years ago, I had a revelation. It grew out of the need for a coping mechanism to deal with the fact my side had completely and utterly lost, I’m sure, but the more I’ve thought about it since, the more convincing I find it.
Basically, in the long term, the referendum doesn’t actually matter, at least in terms of the nature of Britain’s relationship with Europe; and it wouldn’t have done if Remain had won, either. It affects things now, and will do for some years to come – but eventually, I suspect, we’d end up in the same place regardless.
That’s a very easy prediction to make, of course, because there’s no control universe to compare it to, so to play fair here’s a testable hypothesis. Eventually – by the mid 2040s, say – Britain will be back in the European economic block. But, as long as we live in a world of nation states, it will never rejoin the political union. That, I think, was always going to be our national destiny, regardless of the result on 23 June 2016. Let’s meet back here in 25 years to see if I was right.
The reason I think this is because of the interaction between two of those faceless historical forces, pushing us in two different directions. Politics – whether expressed via public opinion, or in the policies chosen by our big political parties – means that Britain would never have been comfortable with joining a European superstate.1 At the same time though, economics, and specifically the gravity model of trade, means there are clear advantages in sharing a single market with our half a billion closest neighbours.
At the moment, we’re ignoring that latter point, because of a panic over freedom of movement and the internal politics of the Conservative party. But neither of those things are permanent factors. The salience of immigration has collapsed since the referendum, and over the next few years labour shortages are likely to be a far bigger worry. As for the Tory party, it will lose power eventually, probably; if it doesn’t, it’ll be because it spends less time worrying about a monomaniacal fealty to a fundamentalist interpretation of a one-off referendum than it does about, say, wage growth.
In both cases, the forces that caused Britain to slice off its own nose during the Brexit negotiations are going to fade away. Britain’s need for a nose, however, will not. All of which suggests to me we’re going to spend the next two decades very slowly and carefully edging back towards the single market.2
What if the referendum had gone the other way, though? After all, it easily could have. Just 1.9% votes the other way would have reversed the result – which means you can make a convincing case that almost anything could have swung it for Remain. Wouldn’t we have ended up on a different path then?
Probably not. Because, at some point, European integration seems likely to cross a line that domestic politics would not allow Britain to cross. At that point, even if there had been a Remain vote, this country would have gone no further: the end result, of a Britain inside the economic orbit of Europe but outside the core political union, would be the same. The events of June 2016 are less important than those faceless historical forces.
I rather glibly wrote earlier that the referendum result didn’t really “matter”, but of course that’s not true. The broken trade links and lost GDP matters. The journeys, connections and migrations never made, matter. The appalling behaviour of the Home Office towards Britain’s European citizens matters. Hell, the fact Brexit may yet be the catalyst for the end of the UK as a nation state matters. In a thousand different ways, Brexit has made a difference – mostly, in my not particularly humble opinion, for the worse. But I don’t think that, in the long run, it will dictate the relationship between this island and the continent it’s part of. Whichever way that vote had gone, our national destiny is to be a bigger, poorer Norway.
The lesson of Asimov’s Foundation stories – the thing I’m worried those adapting it might have misunderstood – is not that individuals can never guide history: it’s that they do so a lot less often than they tell themselves. Johnson, Farage and co may have changed Britain’s path, for a while. In the long view, though, history tends to win.
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2. My book, The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, has been out in the world for six weeks now. Here’s a stack of them in Waterstones Piccadilly, where for some reason I have been strategically placed between Jackie Weaver and Vladimir Putin, life coach. It’s like the worst dinner party ever.
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Actually the last three centuries of British foreign policy suggest we’re not going to be comfortable with the existence of a European superstate, either, but by leaving the European Union we’ve rather forfeited our right to influence that one.
The same logic, roughly, applies to Europe. The need to show there’s a cost to leaving the block will recede; the economic advantage of a cross-channel single market, though smaller to the EU than to the UK, will remain. I’m not saying reintegration will be easy, but it will come to look like a win for both parties.