The debate on the EU referendum is never far from a historical comparison or ‘lesson’. David Cameron warned that ‘What happens in our neighbourhood matters to Britain. That was true in 1914, 1940, 1989…and it is true in 2016.’ Owen Paterson, ex-environment minister and Eurosceptic, claimed Britain will become a ‘colony’ of the EU in the event of a vote for remain. But does this use of history enlighten or obscure?
Historians tend to be uncomfortable with these kind of comparisons to the past. Yet, the almost incessant references in this debate to different parts of our past signal that there is a role for the historian within it, even if that intervention is only to dispel apparent inaccuracies. After all, just the other week a group of historians signed a letter stating a belief that Britain ‘has had in the past… an irreplaceable role to play in Europe.’ And I think that the prominence of history in the debate is something we should make use of.
As a budding scholar of empire, my interest is piqued when I hear statements referencing our imperial past. These references span the whole gamut of empires. Brexiteer, part-time jester, and full-time Machiavellian, Boris Johnson, spoke of how history demonstrates a lack of belief in the idea of Europe from its peoples; he even threw in a Hitler reference.
Johnson argued that this ‘lack of belief’ led to the fall of the Roman Empire. It is strange then that so many European rulers ‘believed’ enough in Rome to attempt their own versions of its rebirth. 1 Moreover, his argument ignores the vast and fascinating changes underway in Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Closer to my own work are the criticisms of Vote Leave that cast the movement as imperial fantasists wanting to create a renaissance of the British Empire. Some of UKIP’s own publicity supports this notion:
Anyone who thinks that the economy of the nation that once created the largest empire in history will be suddenly laid to ruin upon leaving the EU is greatly mistaken, or having left will be friendless, doesn’t understand history or realise when push comes to shove how deep Commonwealth bonds are.
Stirring stuff, but I do not think Britain will be in a position to influence global trade in the way we did for two centuries; for starters we would need a bigger navy. I also wonder if our newly rekindled bonds with Australia would survive the ever-greater sporting rivalry we currently enjoy. Back in the 1930s, a decade that saw the greatest reach of British power, a particularly nasty Ashes series led to a cooling in relations between the two belligerents and growing assertions of Australian independence. The answers to what happens to Britain in a post-Brexit world are not found in Britain’s imperial past.
Finally, those presenting the EU as some kind Imperial or Soviet-style venture discount that its purpose was to create peace and prosperity through cooperation, and some of its early negotiations were based on a common defence policy aimed at defending the new Europe from Soviet invasion. 2 Unfortunately, the more you examine them it is clear that the comparisons are not ‘good’ history. Most of these references to the past only serve to obscure the history of the European Union and of Britain’s history as an imperial superpower.
The answer to most historical questions is often ‘it is complicated/nuanced/multiple shades of grey’ and this complexity and nuance is precisely the importance of the study of the past. In the current EU predicament, I think that more people looking at history and seeing beyond the lazy comparisons with Hitler or the Soviet Union might help to create a healthier debate and democracy.
And with a healthier debate the power of fear in the discussions would be weakened and a serious conversation about the future could take place. I am wary of trying to take lessons from the past, but I firmly believe that learning about and discussing the past can grant us perspective on the present. And surely better perspective and understanding can only be a good thing.
Tom Jackson is a PhD student in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield studying French colonial history. His thesis examines colonial discourse and government policies in the mid-1950s, looking specifically at the relationship between France and West Africa. You can find him on twitter @tom_jackhist.
The excellent History and Policy project has some more nuanced perspectives on History and the referendum, find tweets here https://twitter.com/HistoryPolicy and articles here http://goo.gl/zoalJy. Although subscribers to Yanis Varafouakis’ pro-Europe reform movement DiEM25, the coverage from https://twitter.com/openDemocracy mostly found at https://goo.gl/2ohGTt is in-depth and pulls no punches.
Image: ‘EUSSR flag’, used by EU sceptics, that expresses concern that the EU is becoming more and more like the former USSR, [Wikicommons].
- Several examples can be found in Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (London, 2010), from the first millennium alone. ↩
- See the preamble to the Treaty of Rome; and ‘Treaty Constituting the European Defence Community’ . ↩