Historians, Britain and Europe

Historians, Britain and Europe

If the recent election victory of the Conservative party means one thing for historians, it is that we are going to be called on constantly over the next two years to provide context for wideranging discussions of British membership of the European Union. Yet anyone who assumes that the role of historians will simply be to provide sober, objective corrections to the mythologies, fictions and fantasies peddled by politicians, campaigners and the many pub bores who will doubtless blight our lives in the coming debate must think again. For sure, it will often be necessary to remind that it was a Conservative prime minister who first applied for Britain to join the EEC; that it was a Conservative prime minister who eventually took Britain in; that it was a Conservative prime minister (Margaret Thatcher, no less) who signed the Single European Act; and that it was a Conservative prime minister who accepted the Treaty of Maastricht. But as the formation of the pressure group 'Historians for Britain' shows only too well, many of those mythologies, fictions and fantasies that will circulate over the coming time will actually be penned by historians themselves.

'Historians for Britain' first came to attention with a joint letter to The Times in 2013; they have since created a website; they are currently exercising the minds of their colleagues with a manifesto-style proclamation published by the highly-regarded magazine History Today. It some ways they are refreshingly honest, noting their ties to businesspeople with similar agendas; in other ways they are a little bold in their claims (strip out the journalists and the purveyors of coffee-table history-as-entertainment and the list of 'dozens of Britain's leading historians' looks rather thinner than it first appears); in other ways ('we are independent and non-partisan') they make themselves look faintly ridiculous.

What is most troubling, however, is the version of British and European history they peddle. Magna Carta is clearly in the air! The story of British history they tell is little more than that old Whig story of uninterrupted history since the medieval period, characterised by traditions of moderation, exceptionalism and benign continuity. Britain, so the story seems to go, busied itself with developing model democratic institutions, while the continent - that eternal hotbed of extremists, ideologues and conquistadors - spent a thousand years fighting. Small wonder, perhaps, that the continent needs a set of supranational institutions to keep the peace - history teaches that Britons have no need.

It is difficult to know where to start when engaging with a narrative that, as any Lower Second Class undergraduate can tell you, the profession abandoned decades ago. Suffice to say that the palpable absence of specialists in twentieth-century European history in their list of signatories (only one or two are) shows. As far as the story of continuity is concerned, one wouldn't know, for example, from the manifesto of the Historians for Britain that this little thing called the Industrial Revolution had happened, transforming not only domestic societies and polities (in ways that were obviously different from place to place, but surely here it is the common transformative impact that matters) and simultaneously the ways in which nations, states and empires interacted with each other and the world. One wouldn't know, indeed, that European history as a whole has been the history of agressive imperialism - massively disruptive at home and abroad - and that Great Britain was a key, determining protagonist in this story ('Britain still ruled over vast tracts of the globe, very far from Europe', as the History Today piece puts it, sounds like Cecil Rhodes himself speaking, not a critically-minded historian). That story of imperialism straddles the early modern and modern eras, of course, but not in a manner that sustains a story of benign peacefulness, and hardly in a manner that leaves Britain on the side or renders its history exceptional. Expropriation, slavery, massacres, expulsions, oppression, anyone? The history of imperialism is a major part of what binds British history to that of Europe, not what sets it apart. What were the First and Second World Wars for Britain, after all, if not wars of imperial self-defence?

The idea that Great Britain has sat on the sidelines of European history, intervening only reluctantly to knock together the heads of squabbling continental types once in a while, is a fantasy of little Englanders. So, conversely, is the myth of unique, deep, democratic continuity. There is undoubtedly something real to the story of the longevity of Britain's parliamentary institutions but - again, any undergraduate can tell you this - it was only in the C20th that universal male suffrage was introduced, and only in 1928 that women got the vote on the same basis as men. A cursory glance at the constitutional crisis on the eve of the First World War also reminds that the story of benign democratic exceptionalism is in need of a little complicating. So does the fact that universal male suffrage was introduced in Germany - doubtless the great authoritarian 'other' in the minds of those 'Historians for Britain' - in 1871, and equal votes for women there immediately upon the end of the First World War. As far as German historical continuities are concerned, it's also interesting, for example, to think about traditions of federalism and civic identity that stretch back deep into the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

None of this means that there are no differences between national histories, still less that modern European history needs rewriting as one in which people danced happily in the rain - no-one knows this better than the Europeans themselves. It does mean that the account of Britain's unique contribution to the unfolding of some transcendental history of liberty, underpinning a critique of its contemporary relationship to the European Union, is in need of robust challenge by professional historians of contemporary Britain and Europe - the great majority of whom, I am quite sure, will immediately recognise this manifesto for the nonsense that it is.

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