History Lessons

‘History’ – the subject, that is, not the events themselves – has a lot to answer for. (Well, the events themselves too, obviously; but that’s another matter.) I don’t know how important it is in helping to explain our present fraught situation (in Britain): my own view is that the reasons for that are more immediate and more material; but History is certainly being made use of a lot, chiefly by the ‘Brexit’ side.

‘Taking back  control’ obviously rests on a view of recent history, when we presumably had  control; just as does ‘Make America Great Again’. Beyond that, references to the Second World War, which it is claimed ‘we’ won; to Winston Churchill, whom Johnson appears to want to emulate, in his rhetoric at least; and then to the Empire, which is supposed to have given Britain control of ‘half the world’ in days gone by, pepper the discourses of the Right. There are others. Appeals to our ‘unique’ history as a freedom-loving island, and to our ‘splendid isolation’ in Palmerston’s day, are often brought up as justifications for our separation from the European Union at the present time. Again, I don’t know whether these are genuine motives: whether Empire-nostalgia, for example, really does run this deep in people; or if they’re just smudges of historical relish at the side of the plate – a bit like illustrations in a serious book – to make the dish seem more palatable. In either case, historical ‘precedents’ are nearly always misleading, for two main reasons.

The first is that they are usually wrong, even historically. Britain didn’t win the Second World War: the USSR and USA did; which is not to belittle Britain’s ‘pluck’ in holding out against the Nazis before those two powers came in. Churchill was a pretty second-rate war leader, except  in his resolution and his rhetoric, which really did inspire people; and only came out on the winning side because Hitler made even more mistakes. The British Empire was never quite the dominating entity it’s generally taken to have been, but only ever survived on sufferance, and was at least as much a source of weakness to Britain as of strength. (I can’t go into this now, but it’s a main theme of my ‘imperial’ history books.) ‘Half the world’ is obviously an exaggeration; and even the more usual claims of ‘a quarter’ or ‘a fifth’ are questionable. ‘Splendid isolation’ is a myth, except as a Palmerstonian boast, with Britain never having been as cut off from other powers as she threatens to become now. ‘Uniquely freedom-loving’ depends, of course, on one’s definition of ‘freedom’: her industrial proletariat might not agree; as neither would her Irish subjects, living on her other ‘island’; those, that is, who had not been forced out by famine. All together these aspects of Britain’s ‘history’ can hardly be used to support the case for ‘Brexit’ today; or, indeed, for any other broad national policy, including, of course, a pro-EU one.

The other reason why we should beware of ‘historical precedents’ is that they are  only ‘historical’, forged in different circumstances, and so unlikely to fit the circumstances of today. Insofar as Britain was either ‘imperial’ or ‘splendidly isolated’ in the nineteenth century, it was because of her massive lead over the rest of the world in manufacture and later in overseas investment, which of course is entirely absent – the first of these, at any rate – today. To stand on its head a much-used Victorian formulation, touted by imperialists to justify themselves: British trade didn’t ‘follow the flag’ then, but the very opposite. Britain’s influence and power in the world, such as they were, grew out of her domination of its markets by her manufactured goods – things to sell and materials to buy to make them from. The other basis for Britain’s ‘global’ success was the absence of significant foreign competition in these markets, until an industrialised Germany and then America came along. A few contemporaries saw the writing on the wall even as early as this: before, that is, Britain’s empires – both ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ – had begun their long ‘decline and fall’. Obviously there’s no way of our returning to those conditions. Unless, that is, Boris knows some way of triggering a second (or is it third?) ‘Industrial Revolution’ in Britain, which he hasn’t vouchsafed to us yet. Or will the neo-liberalism which our leading Brexiters all seem to yearn after – it’s one of their reasons for wanting to escape the EU’s regulations, especially over tax havens – do the job?

Today’s world is so different from Palmerston’s and Disraeli’s and even Churchill’s (in his imperial dreams) that it seems not merely misleading but downright dangerous to hark back to their times for guidance. To take one example, a word emphasised by Brexiters to express what they believe disengagement from the EU will give them. ‘Sovereignty’ has never been an absolute reality for any nation which wishes to engage in any way with other countries, and especially for medium-sized countries without the sort of material base that Britain’s first Industrial Revolution gave to her. The Brexiteers’ great delusion is to see sovereignty only in terms of independence from formal alliances, confederations or empires; whereas ‘history teaches us’ (I hate that phrase, but it may be justified in this context) that informal bonds can be at least as restrictive, or more so. The major example today is the commercial treaty Britain may  need to make with the USA, in order to compensate for the loss of her free European trade, which could leave her with less choice – ‘sovereignty’, in other words – than she would have otherwise. Several economists and political scientists have warned of a post-Brexit Britain’s becoming, in effect, an ‘informal colony’ of the USA; just as so many of the countries of Latin America, for example, became informal colonies of Victorian Britain in her prime. The easiest way to avoid this would be to unite with other countries – in this case the obvious one would be the remaining EU – in order to acquire negotiating muscle, as well as for its alternative and more acceptable markets. In truth, ‘sovereignty’ follows not from isolationism – ‘take back control’ – but from co-operation with others; and is what the EU gave Britain before she shrugged off its help.

History can be useful, but not if it is misused in this way. We’ve seen it before: the ‘Hitler’ analogy being employed to unseat other dictators whose circumstances were entirely different – Nasser by Eden, for example; the liberation of Baghdad assumed to be as welcomed by its people as the liberation of Paris in 1944; and in the present case the EU’s being painted – by some extreme Brexiteers – as a continuation of the Nazi Reich. Then of course there’s Margaret Thatcher’s idea of ‘Victorian values’, employed in order to give historical validity to her free-marketist policies in the 1980s. What the people who indulge in this kind of thing forget, or more likely never knew, is that all historical events need to be viewed in their contexts; which is how professional historians study them all the time. Just as contexts can rarely be transplanted from one period to another, let alone one place or another, so nor can the events and actors they surround. Whatever Churchill’s views were on a United Europe – this is disputed, but was also complicated by the existence of the British Empire then – they can’t be taken out of their  context to shed light on the situation today; any more than can the Empire or ‘splendid isolation’ or nineteenth-century ideas of ‘freedom’. If these ‘historical’ memories and myths really do lie behind some of the policies of today, then they can be downright dangerous. 

But that’s not our fault. Serious historians can rarely get a word in when it comes to the use that is made of their discipline. Self-serving myth is always more attractive than either reality, or constructive doubt. My next book, Britain Before Brexit (Bloomsbury, May 20), tries to put people right on this, but of course it won’t be noticed where it matters. Politicians, in particular – even those who dabble in the subject on the side, like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (and I’ve read both of them) – aren’t exposed to serious History, or Historical method. So I don’t hold out much hope.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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