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The idea of deep continuity in British history is absurd. We’ve always been in flux

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tags: British history



David Edgerton is Hans Rausing Professor of the history of science and technology and professor of modern British history at King's College London. His book, England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines, has just been republished by Penguin

There is something ridiculous about Brexit Britain. It is a Carry On movie set in the past: we are living not at a historic moment but one laden with trivialised history. Boris Johnson tells us that with Brexit the nation will find its bojo as it found its mojo under Churchill. Brother JoJo tells us Brexit is the greatest failure of British statecraft since Suez; the greatest crisis since the Second World War.

Brexiters claim a deep continuity in British history betrayed by EU membership. Pro-EU people claim that the UK has never got over imperial delusions of grandeur. The reality is that both grotesquely over-egg continuity.

The problem is not just getting history wrong, but that history is invoked at all. The UK today could not dream of fighting the Second World War, or even invading Egypt. In 1940, Churchill led a great global force, second to none in the world. In 1956, Anthony Eden was at the head of the largest and richest economy in Europe with armed forces which more than matched this.

Today the UK is “just” another European power – a big Canada rather than a small United States, on a par with France and Germany, and on many measures behind them. Looking for past comparisons almost guarantees misunderstanding of this fundamental point, unless that is we look to Canadian history.

British history is one of radical discontinuity, and not quite what it is supposed to be. In 1900, the UK was a cosmopolitan place. It was full of immigrants, from Europe. Food came in from all over the world, free of tariffs too, much from Europe. British coal was vital to both Baltic and Mediterranean nations.

Read entire article at The Guardian

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