Historians for Britain hope to shape the debate over Europe

Historians in the News
tags: britain

Rebekah Higgitt is author, with Richard Dunn, of "Finding Longitude" (2014).

Readers of the Guardian Science pages may not have noticed the group called Historians for Britain, or a recent piece in History Today by David Abulafia asserting their belief “that Britain’s unique history sets it apart from the rest of Europe”. Since it is a pressure group, connected to Business for Britain, that aims to use history to steer the debate over the EU referendum, it will probably become increasingly vocal. It requires critical scrutiny from everyone with an interest in Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world, and in evidence-based political discussion.

Abilafia’s article is a classic example of an old-fashioned “Whiggish” narrative. It claims a uniquely moderate and progressive advance toward the development of British institutions, traced continuously from Magna Carta and isolated from the rages and radicalism of the Continent. There has been a strongly negative response from historians on Twitter, sometimes suggesting their opposition as #HistoriansforEurope or, given the scathing reception of Abulafia’s ‘island nation’ narrative, simply #HistoriansforHistory. A reply is being drafted for the pages of History Today and a piece by Neil Gregor has already appeared in The Huffington Post.

This unique, national story might seem a long way from the universalist ethos of science. Certainly historians of science can very quickly pick holes in Abulafia’s account. They are all too aware of the many connections and communications that have bound the development of knowledge in Britain to Europe and elsewhere (see the beautiful visualisations of the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project to get a sense of this in the early modern period), even though we also acknowledge and explore the importance of local context and geographical distance.

Nevertheless, the sense of British uniqueness often has an appeal – to patriotic sentiment, certainly, but even, apparently, to common sense. A wonderful example of the latter appeared in Brian Cox’s essay accompanying his Science Britannica BBC series. Here, after listing Edward Jenner, Frank Whittle, Tim Berners-Lee, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Cox asks “What is it about Britain that allowed so many great minds to emerge and flourish?”. His answer boils down to “the Royal Society”.

But his question really should be, “Why I have heard of these people and the Royal Society and not the many other people and institutions that have contributed to science and technology?”. The answer is not “because Britain is better and unique” but “because I am British and these are the stories I have been brought up on” at school, university, on TV and elsewhere. Go to another country and you will see that they have their own, equally admirable, pantheon of greats. ...

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