Apparently it’s 1975 all over again: another referendum on British membership of the European Union looms and a ‘New Cold War’ is underway with Russia. 1 All we need now are flared trousers, sideburns and Slade to make a comeback, and, with a quick backwards glance we should easily be able to figure out how to make everything come out Top Trumps on 24 June 2016. If only historical comparisons were that easy, historians would be the most sought after people on the planet and possibly the richest. (It’s not, and they aren’t). 2
Historians, the public and policy makers should be cautious of accepting simplistic historical comparisons to guide future policy. 3 Two years ago we were told it was going to be 1914 again, it wasn’t. Recent references to Adolf Hitler by Ken Livingston and Boris Johnson haven’t proved particularly successful. Also, take a moment to consider how few commentators came anywhere close to predicting the events of 1989, 1994 or 2001.
History happens to be rather good at explaining the past, but far less precise at explaining the present, and even worse at predicting the future. Yet such speculation, in the vain hope of a measurable ‘impact’, is exactly what academic historians are increasingly encouraged to do. Comparisons with the past can be useful when employed judiciously, but unfortunately such a considered approach is unlikely to grab the headlines, a point lucidly made by Dr Linford D. Fisher. 4
Perhaps we should all take a moment to reconsider this practice. Not in order to reject its potential utility, but rather to ponder its potential precision.
A host of articles and blog-posts from historians (several of them on this blog) have been published over the past few months about the upcoming British referendum to stay in or leave the EU. All provide well informed insights into the 1975 referendum and suggest parallels and advice. 5 A variety of positions and viewpoints have been expressed, on both sides of the debate, complete with examples encompassing periods from ancient Greece to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 6
But which ones are ‘right’ about the possible outcome? This is where all starts to get a tad tricky.
No matter how well we understand both the past and today, over the last 40 years the British social, political and media landscape has been utterly transformed. The era of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath is long gone, as is that of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The influence of the political parties, the unions and of Fleet Street have all changed dramatically. Membership of the EU has risen from 9 to 28 states, and the Schengen Agreement plus a single currency means it is a very different organisation from the one the UK joined on 1 January 1973.
Add in the Internet and social media and the public opinion/policy nexus has radically altered. Never mind the fundamental changes to the global economy and the steady decrease in British influence, wealth and power since the 1970s. 7 Britain today is a very different place compared to 1975. She is now far weaker, poorer and arguably more European than she was. The dreams of a staunchly sovereign nation trading across the Atlantic with the former Empire seem to be just that – dreams of glories past.
Given all these complications, the utility of historical comparisons becomes rather ephemeral. 8 Perhaps this question is best left to political scientists and public opinion specialists who, at least in the latter case, correctly predicted the outcome back in 1975. Nor can these historians’ accounts necessarily be taken at face value. We’re just as divided on the subject of Europe as the public and politicians. It would be naïve to think that these pieces are simply an engagement with the ‘facts’.
On one side we have the ‘Historians for Britain’ calling for Brexit that includes Andrew Roberts and David Starkey; on the other we have a letter to The Guardian supporting the Remain campaign, signed by Simon Schama, Ian Kershaw, Niall Ferguson and 297 others. While this is all perfectly reasonable, it raises interesting questions about where to draw the line between ‘objective’ scholarship and political persuasion.
Given all this, I struggle to see any convincing arguments predicting the potential outcome of this week’s vote based on historical analysis. I would argue the parallels between 1975 and 2016 are at best tenuous and at worst non-existent. I should also admit I will be voting to Remain, partly for political reasons, and partly for personal ones. My family and I spend a fair amount of the year in Estonia, where I write this. And as a Londoner, the idea of an ethnically pure Britain, protected from the ravages of immigration fills me with abject horror – both my mother and wife are Eastern European.
As a concluding modest proposal I would suggest all historians, irrespective of position, join forces to study the most significant artefact of the 1975 referendum: Margaret Thatcher’s pro-EC jumper, images of which have adorned countless articles and postings on the subject. Key questions could be addressed such as: whose idea was it, who made it, what was it made from, which flock of sheep, where it is now and how can it be preserved for the nation?
If Britain votes for Brexit, Thatcher’s jumper will stand as a testament to the end of a failed experiment; if it votes to stay then it’ll mark the continuation of the European project. Either way I think this would be a wise and considered project, one that is possibly more worthwhile than historians’ speculations on what’s to come.
Martin D. Brown is Associate Professor of International History and Associate Dean for Research at The American International University in London. His research focuses on European diplomatic history, particularly British foreign policy during the era of Détente leading up to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. You can find him on twitter @.
- More cautious voices such as Mark Galotti and Andrew Monahan reject the use of this excitable, west-o-centric and outdated term. See also, M. D. Brown, ‘Ukraine crisis is nothing like invasions of Czechoslovakia’, The Conversation, 4 April 2014. ↩
- As Linda Risso recently noted with reference to NATO History & Defence, ‘Need for long-term reflection at a time of great change’, History and Policy, 13 April 2016: ↩
- On the complexities and difficulties of this process see: James Lloyd, ‘Should academics be expected to change policy? Six reasons why it is unrealistic for research to drive policy change’, LSE The Impact Blog, 25 May 2016: and Ali Wyne, ‘History isn’t a Playbook: Misguided Analogies and Great Power Competition’, War on the Rocks, 26 May 2016. ↩
- Linford D. Fisher, ‘Your Hitler analogy is wrong, and other complaints from a history professor. Why historical comparisons are usually bad political arguments’, Vox, 19 April 2016 ↩
- A small selection include: Peter Ghosh, ‘Britain is no longer an island: a historian’s take on the Brexit debate’, The Conversation, 13 May 2016; Ryan McCullough, ‘The 1975 European Referendum: A Four Nations Reappraisal of the Campaign’, Blog, 28 March 2016; David Thackeray, ‘Planning for the referendum and after: Lessons from 1975’, History and Policy, 14 March 2016; Alan Sked, ‘The Case for Brexit’, The National Interest, 21 October 2015. ↩
- Paul Cartledge, ‘Referendums Ancient and Modern’, History and Policy, 26 April 2016; Martyn Rady & Richard Overy, ‘The European Union: To leave or not to leave? Two historians take opposing sides as Britain’s referendum on EU membership approaches’, History Today, 18 May 2016. ↩
- See, Niall Ferguson, Charles S.Maier, Erez Manela & Daniel Sargent (eds.), The Shock of the Global: the 1970s in Perspective, Harvard University Press, 2010. ↩
- Yes, we know having the foreign-policy-forming elite behind you, plus a well-funded campaign with daily media briefings, while the opposition remains largely disorganised and under-funded, means you should get the result you desire. But you probably didn’t need a historian to work that out. ↩