I really ought to write something – a blog, an article, maybe even a short book – on how History has been perverted in the service of the ‘Brexit’ cause. As it has been of many other causes, you’ll say; but this is a particularly egregious example. The Brexiters are wrong about the Second World War; about the British Empire; about Britain’s historical ‘identity’; about the real meaning of ‘sovereignty’ (for a small island vulnerable on its own, for example)… and about so many other things that I know something about. But persuading them of this is a difficult task to take on, mainly because it involves a critical understanding of historical causality and responsibility which seems quite beyond our self-styled ‘patriots’. What kind of History do they teach them at Eton, I wonder? But I may have a stab at it. It feels like my duty, as a historian of Britain and, in particular, of British imperialism.
On the question of ‘responsibility’, my hackles always rise when I read Brexiteers claiming that ‘we won the War’. Really? ‘We’? The only people alive today who can take any personal credit for defeating Hitler would have had to have been 18 years old in 1945; that is, 92 today. OK, I realise that people aren’t talking personally, but merely taking pride in the past achievements of their tribe or team. But tribes and teams change over time; as the nation of Britain certainly has. We aren’t the same people as that generation of heroes. ‘They’ weren’t ‘us’.
And that’s quite beside the questions of whether it really was ‘Britain’ who ‘won the War’; or whether the ‘Empire’ could be called an ‘achievement’; or whether Britain has always been apart and distinct from the Continent of Europe in the ways that the Brexiteers claim. These are some of the topics I feel I should address. (I won’t of course be the first historian to do so. Genuine historians have been fretting over this for a couple of years.) In the meantime, my fairly recent British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t makes a start on the imperial side.