‘The Book’ won’t be out until July, which means it will be pretty out of date by then. It was completed and delivered to the Publishers last August; with a plea to them to get it out soon. When they said they couldn’t, I contacted a couple more publishers, but they told me they couldn’t move any more quickly. I really don’t understand this: why publishers can’t speed up their processes such cases; especially when working from word-processed files which no longer have to be set up with fiddly little metal pieces of type, as my first book was. (And that, as I remember, took rather less time to go through the press, in 1969, than Britain’s Contested History will.) Anyhow, just as I warned them, things have happened in the world since last August; which might not negate my original arguments, but would have brought them up to date, and so made the book seem more ‘relevant’. Oh well.
I’m now preparing some publicity material to accompany the book’s publication; not summaries of the book, but articles linked to it. Here is a draft of one rather long one. It hasn’t found a stable yet; and if it’s published at all it probably won’t be in this form. But anyway…
Brexit, Patriotism and History.
OK, that ship has sailed now, so there’s no point in trying to tow it back. ‘You lost; get over it!’ Even if we British later change our national mind – assuming that is what the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum really did express – there would be little possibility of our re-joining the European Union soon, and on the favourable terms we had negotiated previously. In any case our European ex-partners might not want us back. And who could blame them? We’ve not exactly boosted our national reputation under our current Brexiter government. Most foreigners have given up on us. – So much for Brexit’s being a way to restore our pride and esteem as a ‘sovereign’ nation. But of course, these are early days
And they may give us an opportunity to pause and look back over our national history, in order to understand what its significance was in the context of Brexit. ‘History’ of course is only one element in that context; but it undoubtedly played an important role in the debate over whether or not Britain should leave the European Union, whose outcome – with some political tweaks – is the situation we find ourselves in today. Both sides in that debate used ‘historical’ arguments to bolster their positions, and especially over the question of whether Britain had always been a part of Europe, or not. The ‘Leave’ camp, however, was the one that made the most use of ‘history’, in its desire to establish a kind of British ‘exceptionalism’ so far as the rest of Europe was concerned, in order to justify her separation; and in its reference to events – and especially heroes – from Britain’s past.
For Brexit represented the ‘patriotic’ side of the argument, supposedly (but not necessarily, as we shall see); expressed most crudely in this exhortation by Lia Nici, Tory MP for Great Grimsby (Grimsby was one of the ‘red wall’ seats that turned from Labour to Conservative in 2019): ‘If people are not proud to be British, or of our flag or Queen, they do not have to live in the United Kingdom. Perhaps they should move to another country they prefer’. Flag and Queen, of course, and also – although Lia Nici may not have known it – ‘Britishness’, are all historical constructs; which is my reason for placing ‘history’ at – or at least near – the centre of the Brexit debate.
Remainers used it too, in order to emphasise Britain’s historical closeness to the European Continent from the time of ‘Doggerland’ – linking them geographically eight millenia ago – onwards, and emphasising the narrowness of the ‘Channel’ that came between them when a tsunami (probably) inundated Doggerland. Subsequent invasions and settlement by successive waves of Europeans – beaker folk, Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Iberians, Normans, Jews, Irish; followed in the last century by extra-Europeans: all (except probably the Romans) contributing to Britons’ present-day DNA – give some credence to the idea of Britain as a multi-ethnic country from the very start. It’s also hard to imagine British culture (at every social level) without its links with Europe: Shakespeare, for example, not venturing out of dull parochial Stratford into the extraordinarily diverse and international artistic milieu that was London in his time. (His troop of players visited Denmark. Hence ‘Elsinore’.) On a rather different level, even ‘fish and chips’, supposedly quintessentially English, originated abroad. In addition, most of Britain’s political and religious movements were ‘European’ essentially; as were many of her wars. But these historical precedents were too vague, impersonal and diffuse to catch the imagination of most people in 2016, by the side of those events that appealed to their more tribal instincts: Agincourt, the defeat of the Armada, the Empire, the Battle of Britain, the Falklands war, ‘two world wars and one world cup’ (as England’s football hooligans used to chant), and other stirrers of their British blood. How could Edward Heath – our leader out of Europe – possibly hope to measure up against the much mythologised Winston Churchill, or the truly mythical King Arthur, or Nelson, or Margaret Thatcher, as foci for retrospective national pride? (Ignore for the moment the fact that both Churchill’s and Thatcher’s attitudes towards European integration were ambivalent, to say the least.) The point is that people like to remember ‘great’ events, and to cluster around ‘heroes’. They don’t see many of those around today (now that Boris’s wannabe-Churchillian sheen has begun to fade); and so they delve back into the past for them instead. That is one of the roles that History has played.
Much of it, on both sides, is either simply wrong, or grossly misleading. That’s where we serious historians come in. Some have ventured into the debate already. The latest is Ian Morris, with his thought-provoking Geography is Destiny: Britain’s Place in the World, a 10,000 Year History – strongly recommended – published in May. My own Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots, covering a much shorter period, is due out in July. We’ll see what effect these books have on people’s perceptions of Britain’s relations with Europe: that is, if they have any effect at all. Academics’ views don’t usually register widely unless they can be taken or twisted to confirm people’s prejudices. One of those prejudices could be said to be the anti-intellectual one: ‘we’ve had too much of experts’, as Michael Gove once notoriously said, so setting all our hard-won expertise aside. But in any event, and if they were taken seriously, no historical ‘expert’ would be likely to come down unequivocally on either side of the Brexit debate. History simply doesn’t work in that way.
That is because the lessons we might want to draw from it are almost never straightforward. Even the ‘traditions’ that Lia Nici feels ought to cement our loyalty to Britain are more recent than she obviously realises – including royalty, the Union flag, and the very idea of ‘Britain’ as a nation – and were rivalled by other ‘traditions’, which were equally embedded in our British experience, and so just as ‘British’ as hers. There has always for example been an authoritarian and anti-democratic thread running through British history: overtly before the early 1900s, when the ‘mob’ and the monstrous regiment of women were finally granted the vote; and then more subtly, through propaganda, to tame their mobbishness. ‘Democracy’ certainly isn’t a characteristic British feature. Nor are any of the qualities that are usually associated with it. We have never been a corrupt country, claimed Boris Johnston recently. No, not true. Just look (again) at history. Britain was never as stable as she is often thought to have been, coming near to revolution on several occasions, and occasionally crossing over the line. She was never ‘splendidly isolated’, either, so if that is an effect of Brexit it will be something new. Even ‘Fascism’ – depending on how one defines it – has its place in our political culture; never more so – arguably – than today. As of course does her more celebrated anti-Fascism, representing the other side of a British ‘national identity’ that was always conflicted.
The conflict can also be seen in Britain’s relationship with ‘imperialism’. Of course her empire – another focus of retrospective patriotism: ‘we used to rule half the world’, as Ukip crowds used to chant – was an important feature of her identity from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries. But it was not something that particularly distinguished her from other European nations, many of which had overseas empires too, or else hankered after them; and secondly, was not nearly so dominant as ‘half the world’ implies. Within Britain opinion about the Empire was divided, with anti-imperialism being almost as powerful and effective a strand in the national discourse as its opposite, and imperial indifference trumping both. In fact it could be argued that ‘anti-imperialism’ was invented by the British, before it spread throughout the world. (Anti-imperialism on principle, that is; not merely opposition to the particular imperialism that is oppressing you.) As for the supposed effects and benefits of British imperialism, no historian today would claim that they were unalloyed – far from it; or that – despite its dreadful excesses – its results were uniformly ‘bad’. In particular, to address a charge often made by modern-day detractors, Britain’s South African ‘concentration camps’ were not the same Hitler’s; and it’s a gross distortion of history to assume – because of the name – that they were. But the main problem here – apart from that lazy semantic slip – is that both champions and critics of Britain’s colonial history ascribe too much agency to nations and governments, without taking account of the contexts in which these events occurred. Context, in fact, is the serious historian’s major contribution to anyone’s understanding of history; that is, of ‘anyone’ who is prepared to bother with ‘experts’.
The empire however no longer appears to be a major preoccupation today, even for what used to be called the ‘blimps’, or ‘harrumphers’, as Jeremy Paxman calls them. World War II is clearly the main historical focus for retrospective patriots now: the setting for innumerable post-war books and movies, and for their prize examples of typical British ‘heroism’. In this connection no-one today believes – do they? – that Britain really did win ‘two world wars’: on her own, that is. But her great hero Winston Churchill’s reputation, honed and burnished in wartime, still has some mileage in it (as I write this, Boris Johnson is digging up some of his wartime phrases to chivvy the Ukrainians up in their war against Russia: ‘your finest hour’); and this despite Churchill’s very many failings; for which we need to provide ‘context’, too. (Personally, as a child of the London blitz, I can forgive him his flaws, and retain my admiration and gratitude for his stirring words.) But in any case Churchill was untypical of the nation as a whole. Aside from him, we should recall that it was the Conservatives of the time who generally were the ‘appeasers’, not Labour; and the working classes who were the staunchest supporters of the war effort. You wouldn’t think that to hear some of today’s Tories. In this way is history twisted, subtly, into myth.
But in any case it’s questionable whether any of Britain’s achievements in the past can be attributed to individuals like Churchill; those whom Jacob Rees-Mogg – in a much panned history book he published recently – calls Britain’s ‘Titans’, whose ‘spunk’, he thinks, simply needs to be recovered in order to restore her ‘greatness’ again. That, it has to be said, betrays a very old-fashioned, or perhaps Etonian, view. (His school chum Boris Johnson shares it; exemplified in his biography of Churchill.) I believe Eton teaches mainly ancient Greek and Roman history, rather than modern. (I’ve written to the school to ask about its history syllabus, but received no reply.) Of course I may be wrong, both about Eton’s history teaching, and about the role of spunky leaders in public affairs. But the point is that even those leaders – Rees-Mogg’s ‘Titans’ – came surrounded by context; and a context which in Britain’s case was complex and often self-contradictory.
Hence the unwisdom of seeking to build a straightforward argument for almost anything at all on historical precedents, even if those precedents are researched and presented pretty accurately. There are so many of them, often in conflict with one another. Which of them we wish to choose to support our case for or against Brexit is up to us; but it will be just that – a choice – rather than a position founded on ‘history’.
Anyway: why should we want to bring ‘history’ into it at all? Britain is as she is, not what she was. Conditions – context – are different now. Doggerland is no more; so neither is the Empire (formally, at any rate); our anti-Fascist wars are over (unless we’re dragged into the Ukraine imbroglio); and we have other much greater problems to come to terms with: inequality, pandemics, recession, the power of an untamed propagandist press, late-stage global capitalism, Islamicist and Right-wing terrorism, the rise of China, the decline of America, a dangerously resentful Russia, immigration, anti-immigration (not at all backed up by Britain’s ‘history’), the power of the internet, corruption, world poverty and hunger, global warming; not all of them totally unprecedented or unanticipated, but all of them altering fundamentally the context in which we presently live, vote and – so far as our legislators are concerned – govern.
‘Patriots’ especially don’t need to be so fixated on the past. I’m one of those who literally took Lia Nici’s advice to heart – although before she had uttered it – and now mostly live in ‘another country I prefer’. One of my motives for that move – not the only one; I had a more personal one too – was the condition that I felt my country of birth had fallen into politically, especially with the Brexit vote and the arguments that were brought out to support it, and the character of the governments that Brexit, and other factors, had given rise to. I felt then, I hope wrongly, that all this had so fundamentally changed the country that I had formerly felt pretty patriotic towards, as to merit my exchanging Lia Rici’s sort of patriotism for the kind that wants to make one’s country better, rather than defending it as it is. That would involve ditching much of its ‘history’; not the more liberal threads in it that had attracted my original loyalty, but certainly the ‘queen and flag’ version that Lia Nici feels should define a patriot in the age of Brexit. As it happens, that is the sort of patriotism that is taught in Swedish schools (Sweden is my country of refuge): loyalty towards your country’s aspirations, rather than its past, which was pretty bloody in Sweden’s case. (Vide the Vikings, and her Stormaktstiden, when Sweden was a ‘great power’ in northern Europe.) It was also – to revert to British history – implicit in the attitudes of those who, after the last World War, voted to discard their patriotic hero Churchill in order to make Britain a better place than she had been before it. For patriots can want to build New Jerusalems, as well as to return to old ones. And that usually involves dumping large parts of their ‘history’; healthily, in my view.
Of course it is natural to be fond of the country we were born and live in, and to admire its citizens’ past achievements; but we surely shouldn’t be expected to feel pride in those achievements, if we had no part in them, as we obviously won’t have done for most of ‘history’. I’m entitled to feel neither pride nor shame for my country of birth’s imperial past, for example, simply because I happen to live on the same little patch of the earth as the imperialists did 100 years ago. I can possibly admire that past, or regret it, or even help make up for the damage done by it; but I can bear no responsibility for most of it. We can’t choose where we were born or brought up. Immigrants can take pride in the countries they migrated to – they after all did (we presume) choose them. But not the native-born; and not with regard to their country’s past history. ‘I’m sorry, officer. It had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there.’
This is why Lia Nici’s implied insistence on blind allegiance to ‘flag and Queen’ is not something I can personally relate to. False or over-simplified history – which is what many of those in the current debate rely on – can be misleading. But so can factually accurate accounts, if they come without context. And surely our view of Britain’s relations with continental Europe need not depend on ‘history’ at all. There are other – and I would say much better – arguments both for Brexit and against it, leaving Britain’s past out of the equation entirely. ‘History’ should be handled gingerly and critically. And this advice comes from a professional historian; an ‘expert’, if you will.