Rival historians trade blows over Brexit

Historians in the News
tags: Brexit



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When historians get sucked into a political controversy, it is often a sign that a country is going through an identity crisis. In Germany in the 1960s, an academic argument about whether the country had been responsible for the first world war provoked a ferocious public debate — because of its implication that Nazism was not a solitary aberration in German history. The bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989 provoked a sharp division between French historians about the true meaning of the events of 1789 — with the left celebrating the revolution as a triumph of liberty and the right emphasising the way in which it had descended into terror and despotism.

Disputes between historians of Britain have not tended to be so obviously political. Generations of undergraduates have enjoyed, or snoozed through, arguments about the standard of living in the industrial revolution (better or worse?); or the “strange death of liberal England” (organised labour or the first world war?) — and such debates sometimes did pit Marxist historians against conservatives. But these arguments generally remained some way removed from the rough-and-tumble of daily politics.

So it is perhaps a sign that Britain is now much less sure of its national identity that the country’s historical profession has got sucked into a heated argument about the most vexed political issue of the moment: Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe.

With Britain’s referendum on EU membership just weeks away, David Cameron has appealed to British history to make the case for the UK staying inside the EU. In a speech at the British Museum earlier this week, the prime minister argued that, “From Caesar’s legions to the wars of the Spanish succession, from Napoleonic wars to the fall of the Berlin Wall . . . Britain has always been a European power.”

In his efforts to ground his arguments in British history, the prime minister was tapping into a debate that has already been rumbling in the country’s universities. The trigger for the dispute was the formation of a group called “Historians for Britain”, chaired by David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge. In a letter released ahead of Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s EU membership, the Historians for Britain argued that the UK should stay only in a “radically reformed European Union” that reflected “the distinctive character of the United Kingdom, rooted in its largely uninterrupted history since the Middle Ages”. ...




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