The deep historically rooted misperceptions revealed by Brexit

Dr Jessica Reinisch, Reader in Modern European History, discusses the ahistorical narrative around the UK and its European neighbours that is shaping Brexit. 

History has been part of the Brexit madness from the start. It’s hardly news that thinking about things that happened in the past is often directly shaped by perceived priorities in the present, but something rather more one-sided has been going on with history under Brexit. From the small group of Eurosceptic historians around David Abulafia and their problematic claims about Britain’s past, to the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski’s wilful ignorance of the role of Marshall Aid in post-war Britain: history has never been far away from the Brexit politics of today.

Since the UK referendum campaigns, politicians have tried to bolster their support of ‘Leave’ with claims about history and arguments about the present in the light of the past. Some academic historians and a range of history buffs have been eager to oblige these efforts. For them, what Abulafia called “a historical perspective” involves rifling through the past for evidence that the Brexit project is valid, desirable, perhaps even inevitable. As their once marginalised opinions have become mainstream and their confidence has grown, Brexit-supporting historians have set the pace of historical debate, if we can call it that – or rather the proclamation of more or less uncontextualized (or simply false) statements about the past, followed by an often bewildered chorus of disquiet from historians at large.

The claims put forward by the ‘Historians for Britain’ were quickly rebuffed by historians across the UK, who presented plenty of evidence that undermined the supposed exceptionality and benevolence of the British path and its immutable separation from the rest of Europe. “Britain’s past”, they pointed out, was “neither so exalted nor so unique.” In a more recent piece in the New Statesman, Richard Evans, never one to run from a good fight, lists a catalogue of examples where today’s Brexiteers have manipulated and distorted the past to fit their political agenda. But these efforts notwithstanding, the politics of Brexit has spawned what Simon Jenkins has fittingly called “yah-boo history: binary storytelling charged with fake emotion, sucked dry of fact or balance.” Jenkins’ comment made reference to Labour’s John McDonnell, though as Richard Evans shows, the Tory Brexiteers’ list of abuses of history is rather more substantial and significant.

The problem isn’t so much that apparently everyone feels entitled to serendipitously dip into the past for findings to support whatever they believe in; it is rather that much of this history is so very un- and anti-historical. History has become a caricature of parochial dreams, nostalgias and made-up analogies to prop up binary political choices. At stake is the nature, direction and meaning of British history and Britain’s place in the world. But just as important is the question of whether history can really be scaled down to an apparently singular ‘British’ vs ‘European’ position.

It is high time for historians to restore complexity and take seriously the variety of geographical and historical vantage points which can bring to light very different timelines and priorities. The contributions to a roundtable debate, published by Contemporary European History, have tried to do just that. It asked 19 historians of Europe working within very different national and historiographical traditions to reflect on the historical significance and contexts that gave rise to Brexit and within which it should be understood. The result is a palette of pertinent historical contexts in which Brexit has made an appearance and can be analysed. As a result, some of the certainties appearing in the Brexiteers’ version of history suddenly seem much less certain.

The upshot of this roundtable cannot be easily reduced to a political headline, and that is precisely the point. Serious history rarely works that way. As the contributors show, the prospect of Brexit has revealed deep historically-rooted misperceptions between the UK and its European neighbours; Brexit in this sense is a process of stripping away dusty historical delusions about national paths and those of neighbouring countries. The essays demonstrate that Brexit has to be understood in the context of a long history of British claims about the uniqueness of the UK’s past. Europeans at times recognised British history as a model to be emulated. But they periodically also challenged the applicability of the British yardstick to their own national exceptionalisms, or pointed to an equally long history of connections between the UK, the British Empire and the European continent. The present debates about British history and its place in Europe and the world alter readings of the past, in some cases significantly. History is, once more, being rewritten in the light of Brexit.

This article first appeared on the Cambridge Core blog

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