This historian says the public shouldn’t care what historians think about Brexit

Historians in the News
tags: Brexit



Tim Stanley held lectureships at the University of Sussex in 2008–09 and Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2009–11, and from 2011 to 2012 he was an associate member of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.

There is no historical case for leaving the EU. There is no historical case for staying in. That’s because this isn’t an existential matter. It’s a practical decision. Do you think your country is better off in or out? I think the latter. So I’m voting for Brexit.

The vast majority of historians probably want to stay. This doesn’t surprise me. Most of my colleagues are social democrats of the Roy Jenkins variety – which is dandy. What is frustrating is the idea, encouraged by the media, that historians have some special, purely objective insight on the modern world thanks to their familiarity with the past. We don’t. Knowing the ins-and-outs of 17th century Westphalia does not make you an expert on EU agricultural policy. Most academics – good academics – are specialists to the point of loners. Go to a historical conference and you’ll find a room full of people who don’t know what each other is talking about.

I’m not saying that history isn’t fun, illuminating, thought provoking. It’s all of those things. But when it becomes mixed with politics, it becomes mythology. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. So long as you know that what you’re reading is prejudiced.

The maverick Leave myth is that we’re not really Europeans. We were yoked by Norman invaders until Henry VIII began the fightback in the 16th century with the English Reformation. And sometime between Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria we asserted Parliamentary sovereignty while liberating ourselves from Europe and going out into the world – building a multicultural empire. Ted Heath is the Judas in this myth, the man who sold us out to the Common Market and, before we knew it, everything the Germans had tried to do in two world wars they’d finally accomplished through diplomacy.

It’s easy to see why Europhile historians find this myth appalling. It reeks of know-nothing nationalism. Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Schama points out that British institutions have been heavily influenced by European ideas and physical invasions (he is right: the Glorious Revolution was a Dutch coup d’etat), while the genetic and cultural character of these islands have been shaped by wave after wave of immigration. So far, so accurate – but it’s when Schama makes the leap towards saying that the truly British thing to do would be to vote Remain that the historian’s analysis slips, as it always does, into myth. ...




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