David Abulafia, the leading historian behind the Historians for Britain campaign, penned an article ‘Britain: apart from or a part of Europe’ in the current issue of History Today. The controversial article posits that Britain’s unique history sets the country apart from the rest of Europe. Since its publication, it has kicked up a storm of reactions, with historians at Royal Holloway and the History Vault as well as Neil Gregor, Neville Morley and Charles West at History Matters, and a response article in History Today signed by 250 academics criticizing Abulafia’s highly reductive distortion of the history of the United Kingdom.

Abulafia rightly calls on historians to join the public debate and revisit the historical understanding of Britain’s place in Europe. However, I am struck by the complete absence of analysis in his article of Britain’s place in the European Union or what was known during the Cold War as the European Economic Community (EEC). If Historians for Britain genuinely wants to look ­– as it claims – ‘at the historical myths that surround the EU and at Britain’s troubled history with the Union’ it should start with the reasons and motives that informed Britain’s first attempt to revisit the Churchillian ‘with Europe but not of it’ attitude and apply for membership on 31 July 1961.

In his official history of the United Kingdom and the European Community, Alan Milward asserts that Britain’s postwar national strategy entailed the attainment of two goals, namely military security and domestic prosperity. It is true that in the immediate post-war years, while recognizing the importance of Europe, Britain strove to achieve post-war renewal by prioritizing the ‘special relationship’ with the Americans and Commonwealth. Such a strategy reflected divergent historical paths during the Second World War as well as economic and political realities that differentiated Britain from the rest of Europe. Contrary to declarations of a revolution in British foreign and economic policy, Macmillan’s application in 1961 represented, according to Milward, ‘a last concession to preserve the national strategy pursued since 1950’.[1] Therefore, it was not the goals of the country’s national strategy that changed in 1961, but simply the means of achieving such goals, with Europe taking centre stage. Economic considerations and in particular the long-term shift in Britain’s trading patterns away from the Commonwealth and towards Europe influenced the decision to apply for membership. Reflecting such anxieties, Macmillan remarked in September 1960 that ‘we are a country to whom nothing at this moment matters except our export trade’.[2] Along with economic considerations, revisionist historians have pointed to the country’s shrinking international role that speeded up Britain’s rapprochement with Europe. The unexpected success of the nascent EEC, the declining Anglo-American relationship, the exigencies of the Cold War in the form of the Berlin crisis and the realization of the ineffectiveness of the Commonwealth in practical and symbolical terms, formed the background against which the decision to join the EEC was made.

The description of this episode, which forms one of the many moments in Britain’s turbulent relationship with EEC/EU, exemplifies the need to shed simplistic interpretations and accept instead the deep complexities involved. In retelling the history of European integration and Britain’s place within it, historians struggle with what Mark Gilbert had called the linguistic teleology present in the term ‘ever closer union’. This teleology feeds into our understanding of the EU processes, as does an inclination to write history backwards, conditioned by the long-run development of Britain’s awkward relationship with European integration. To avoid teleological interpretations and dispel myths, historians reflecting on Britain and Europe need to understand the different historical circumstances and their changeable nature. Britain’s relationship with Europe is not a static entity but has a dynamic character that entails an ever-evolving interaction of political, social and cultural factors. These determine the discussion and ultimately reflect society’s contemporary perception of Europe.


[1] Alan S.Milward, The United Kingdom and the European Community. Vol. 1: The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-1963 (London: Frank Cass, 2002), 346

[2] James Ellison, ‘Accepting the Inevitable: Britain and European Integration’, in W. Kaiser and G. Staerck (eds), British Foreign Policy, 1955-64: Contracting Opinions (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 179.


Eirini Karamouzi is Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield and A. G. Leventis Fellow, SEESOX, St Anthony’s College, Oxford. You can follow her on twitter @EiriniKaramouzi


Tags : EECEuropean UnionexportsHarold MacmillanHistorians for Britainmodern historytrade
Eirini Karamouzi

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