In hindsight, foresight: Brexit & Australian history

The whirlpools of the Brexit debate that will come to its climax in the 23 June referendum are not for monks to be dipping anything more than their toes into, and even then only with the loins securely tethered to the shoreline. There are significant arguments in both directions, and significant appeals to sentiment.

The real annoyance for me is the Leave campaign’s constant decrying of Remain supporters’ warnings as part of a campaign of fear. My reaction is invariably, “Yes. And?” It strikes me that it is a duty of those who wish to alter the status quo to demonstrate that there is nothing to fear from change and everything, or at least a lot, to gain from it. In other words, they need to show that, on balance, things would be better for Britain if we were to leave the EU. If there is something to fear, and there are lots of different interest groups who feel that there is, then those fears need to be addressed and not just shouted down.

One fear for me is that the fears being raised about Brexit might in fact turn out to have been justified. Then in hindsight the fear campaign will look to have had remarkable foresight.

So let’s dip into the somewhat less turbulent waters of Australian colonial history for a moment. These too are subject to occasional storms, but on this occasion they shall be calm enough.

A lady who regularly attends morning Mass in the abbey church recently lent me a book, Select Documents in Australian History, 1788–1850 (1950) edited by Professor Manning Clark. My eye alighted on one small passage. It is the product of handwritten notes of Captain Arthur Philip RN, who led the First Fleet that brought English settlement to the Australian continent in 1788, and who became the colony’s first governor. These notes date from 1787 and capture on paper his thoughts on how he would erect this new and far-flung colony of the British Empire the following year.

Captain Arthur Philip, first Governor of New South Wales, on landing in what would become Sydney [oil painting by Francis Wheatley (1786), at the National Portrait Gallery in London]
The final paragraph is striking:

The laws of this country [ie the United Kingdom] will, of course, be introduced in (New) South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves. [#12, p.42]

The context is all. The American colonies had recently rebelled and cut themselves off from Britain. They had always been colonies of free settlers, but also where foreigners had been forcibly imported to provide a workforce of slave labourers. So to an indignant British son of empire, that this country, founded originally by those who who sought freedom of worship and where political and fiscal freedom was still essential to their national identity, should keep slaves was as good as hypocrisy. Philip and his milieu, of course, would have had no especial love for the African negroes, just as they would show no especial concern for the Australian aboriginal inhabitants.

But on slavery had been built wealth, and from this wealth came the ability to cast off the British mantle. It would not be so in this new colony. New Holland, as it was first known, would not be allowed to become another United States of America. Though the majority of its first settlers would be, ironically, convicts, for Philip this was not to remain a penal colony but a new and loyal outpost of British imperial power and civilisation.

His resolution was kept by himself and by those who followed him. There were never slaves in Australia, and even the aboriginal people were never enslaved, though they were often persecuted and more often grossly neglected. Australia developed a larrikin, even at times rebellious, spirit but it never rebelled, and Australia was always first to join Britain in her wars. Though it shares a frontier spirit with the USA, it is far from being an America Down Under.

In hindsight we can allow that Governor Philip showed remarkable foresight.

Lest I be seen to be too rosy about him there is, however, something in this same set of notes that shows him less prescient:

As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundations of an empire, I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison, and other settlers that may come from Europe, and not be allowed to mix with them, even after the 7 or 14 years for which they are transported may be expired. [ibid.]

A whole world away from Britain, at the uttermost ends of the earth, with more and more convicts transported to Australia, and in numbers that for a long time made them a significant social element in the colony, it was never realistic that a form of apartheid between free settler and convict could last. Agriculture and construction both relied overwhelmingly on convict labour, and one of Australia’s greatest architects was sent there as a convict. Convicts who behaved well were given their ticket of leave early, and granted landholdings which they were expected to develop into productive farms. They did. And given that in Britain at that time the ownership of land was the measure of social standing and the basis of the right to vote (for men that is!), this made Australia markedly different from the mother country. Indeed this quickly-prosperous land was built on foundations laid by convicts. Philip was not a little inconsistent, to the point of self-contradiction.

So what of relevance is this little foray into Australian history, and one painted in such broad and sweeping strokes? As much or as little as you wish to make of it. But as we in Britain approach the referendum on membership of the EU, we would do well to look at history’s lessons and try to learn from them, lest hindsight reveal us to be boobies with a dire lack of foresight. Remember, too, that the clearest voices are not always the loudest.

Is Britain broken by its membership in Europe? If not, don’t fix it. If it is, then how best do we fix it? Is Brexit the ideal, or even adequate, fix?

If you can answer these questions to your own, honest, satisfaction, then you will know which way to vote.

For those outside Britain, sorry for this local political detour. Then again, no matter where we might be, there is nothing to be lost from a little honest national self-assessment.

Rule Britannia! If you can…


6 thoughts on “In hindsight, foresight: Brexit & Australian history

  1. Two posts in one day—what a treat…and a history lesson to boot, can’t get much better! 🙂

    Seems much of the slave trade came to the “new world” via Spain and Portugal’s strong early footings in the southern territorial settlements of this “new world.” Both countries had been in the business of “taking” and trading Africans since the early 1400s. Both Spain and Portugal were routinely “exporting” west Africans to the Azores to work the sugar plantations. At the same time there were also slaves in the British Colonies of the West Indies…as once again, tobacco and sugar crops proved to be big business. It didn’t take long for these “conquering nations to figure out that these big money cash crops were readily adapted to the new southern settlements of North America…and it was then downhill from there…

    I’ve been watching with keen interest the debates over the pros and cons of Brexit—just as I watch, almost horror stricken, our own presidential debacle.
    As Britain is our closet ally—for good and bad, I feel a deep moral responsibility for the relationship between our two nations—if GB hurts, I feel we in America hurt…If GB is happy and healthy, we can’t help but to feel that same health and happiness.

    Yet I know the importance of watching from a far.
    And I find it most interesting hearing and reading world leaders such a Merkel and Putin weighing in…

    Several years ago I was traveling on holiday in Austria. It was just a month prior to the 2012 US presidential election—the one between Obama and Romney. I for one have never been a fan of Mr. Obama…especially after 4 years of his leadership, I for one was indeed ready to move on.
    But being away, in Europe, was a nice respite from the all things political which engulf our country prior to any election—just like now.

    As my aunt and I were waiting on a train at the Salzburg station, a young woman overheard us talking. She immediately came over to us the minute she figured out we were Americans. She quickly started in on how we needed to vote for Obama as she began to lecture us Americans on American policy.
    Here was a young Austrian woman, mid 20’s, lecturing two “older” American woman as to how we should vote.

    I’ve never been one to tell anyone of a different nationality how they should vote for their leaders or major political decisions—
    As I do not live in that country, I figure I don’t have ” a dog in that fight”—meaning I don’t have first hand knowledge as to the real pros and cons so really don’t have a right to voice my feelings one way or another.
    Just as I don’t feel it right to tell the British how they should vote regarding their choice of to exit or not to exit.
    Not that staying or exiting won’t effort the global family—but as I do not live in GB nor pay taxes nor work there—my “friends” must yield to their own conscious as to the best choice.

    I will say that as an ally I do feel a vested interest…but still not worthy of throwing in my 2 cents…

    It will be interesting to watch—just as it will be interesting to watch here come November..

    The one thing I will offer…
    God help both our Nations….


  2. Ahh Father, I had just finished a brilliant comment, when I think I clicked out before posting my words—pitty…don’t know if I can recall it all—
    first I said something about being happy to have two posts from you in one day! Adding that I was excited we were having a bit of a history lesson…

    I then went on to add that the slaves which made their way to the New World, came firstly from the galleys of both Spanish and Portuguese ships as both countries had been taking and trading West Africans since the early 1400’s—all to work the sugar cane farms in both South America and Caribbean. The British were also in on the act as they were transporting slaves to the West Indies–for much the same purpose. When the Spanish discovered that the southern territories of the new world were conducive to growing tobacco and sugar…the sad spiral continued…giving way eventually to cotton…and the rest is indeed history.

    I added that I have been watching with a keen interest the raging debates in Britain with regards to the Brexit—just as I am watching, horror stricken, our own presidential debacle.
    I feel a keen affinity for Great Britain–as I think most American do—we are kissing cousins as it were and strong allies.
    I want Britannia to be happy—for as such strong friends, we each feel one another’s joys as well as sorrows.

    Yet I know better than to weigh in on the debate—as I am indeed merely an ally and kissing cousin.

    Several years ago, when traveling in Austria, it was a month prior to the 2012 US presidential election…
    My aunt and I were at the train station in Salzburg when a young woman heard us chatting. She quickly made her way over to us and immediately began to tell us how we would need to vote in our upcoming election.
    I was not, nor am I a fan of Mr Obama. After 4 years, I was more than ready to move on (imagine now after 8 years!!)
    I was a bit floored that a 20 something young lady thought the need to tell two “older” ladies of differing nationality how they should be voting in their country’s upcoming election when it was clear, she didn’t have a dog in the fight.
    I do not have a dog per se in the Brexit fight either but I do find it interesting reading and hearing the comments by leaders such as Merkel and Putin—as well as others…

    As an ally, I want the best for GB… as her wellbeing is reflected to our own wellbeing…and that is the same in reverse.
    Yet as I do not live in GB, pay taxes there nor work, I can but merely observe and trust the British people to make the best decision for Great Britain.
    Just as I pray that we here will make a wise decision in November—but sadly our choice is somewhere between bad and worse and any given day one is worse than the other–

    My only words are… God help our two nations.


    1. Hi Daniel.

      I did pop by and I can agree with your take on things. Drawing from your topic of peace, I would add that with Russia looming larger and more threatening Europe would be much better and safer together. I know there is still NATO, but the more we are bound to each other the more unlikely it is that Putin can drive a wedge between the various nations and so making divide-and-conquer much less attractive a strategy for him.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.