As historians, we look backwards, as human beings, we live life forwards, but sometimes we hold our breath, for a long moment in the present.
Who forgets the first time one casts one’s vote? The very first time I used my vote was as an 18-year old in 1975, more precisely the 5th June as Wikipedia reminds me, in the UK referendum to remain in what was then called the European Community or Common Market. As part of a voter turnout of ca. 64%, and as one of the 67% who overwhelmingly voted yes: 17,378,580 others + me.
It was perhaps another Britain 41 years ago, but some of the arguments were the same as now, and as a brand new voter, though I knew in my heart and head how I would vote, I still reflected over the arguments of the other side and admitted that one or two of their points did make sense. However, my decision to vote yes then was made with a look at history, geography and politics: Britain has always been part of Europe both historically (and archaeologically), as well as geographically. And the best way for Britain to maintain its influence in the world was, I believed, through its membership of the EU.*
Today this first referendum is part of history. Just as the results of the referendum of the 23rd June will be. How will this decision be seen in a year’s time? In 10 years? In 41 years? And thereafter? How will its impact influence events in time to come? In the UK? In Europe? In the world?
No one knows. A moment can seem a long time. The moment a politician was tragically murdered in her constituency; the moment a sitting prime minister gave his notice to resign; the moment a vote was cast – history is made of such moments.
Change is part and parcel of being human, as Ricoeur** reminds us. Our personal histories are entangled with those of others. As individuals we have the capacity to say, to engage in conversation with others; we have the capacity to act; we have the capacity to recount our histories and those of others in ever changing ways; we are able to take responsibility for our actions, when others are harmed by our actions, we have the capacity to make reparations; and we are able to make and keep promises about the future. All this we do in the company of others.
For we need the recognition and good will of others to function as human beings in society. To continuously negotiate our differences of opinions, to generously concede a point when we have a difference of opinion, and equally generously hold out a helping hand. In the face of the other, we see our fragile selves. Without the other, we cannot be in this moment in history.
*Four decades later, I’m still of the same opinion and would have voted to remain, if I had been eligible to vote this time.
**In its original French, this speech was more elegantly titled Devenir capable, être reconnu.