Opinion Articles

Historians for Britain and the ‘historical perspective’ on Europe

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Writing last week in History Today, Professor David Abulafia argues that ‘Historians for Britain’, a pro-referendum lobby-group of which he is the chair, ‘aims to facilitate [the] debate’ over Britain’s relationship with Europe by offering an ‘historical perspective’. Any call for policy to be informed by history is to be welcomed, and the invitation to debate gladly accepted. However, the terms and conditions under which Professor Abulafia states it must be held are uncertain and unconvincing.

Prof Abulafia reiterates many of the claims made on the organisation’s website, to the effect that ‘Britain’s values’ are being undermined by ‘the terms of Britain’s EU membership’. These values, apparently ‘peculiar to our shores’, stretch from ‘the ideas of common law and parliamentary sovereignty to the struggle for greater democracy and fairness’. Furthermore, the ‘degree of continuity’ experienced by ‘ancient institutions’ in Britain is purported to be ‘unparalleled in continental Europe’. Once a renegotiation has taken place that properly ‘reflect[s] the distinctive character of the United Kingdom’, Abulafia concludes, a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU must be conducted.

Such an emphasis on British exceptionalism hardly bodes well for a renegotiation that is open to the unity and shared interests which have been both the foundation and the strength of the European project thus far. Nor does it adequately articulate Britain’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. To suggest that a struggle for ‘democracy and fairness’ is ‘peculiar’ to Britain is historically problematic at best, demonstrably patronising at worst. Surely many participants in the French Revolution, one of the historical events which Abulafia argues sets Britain apart from continental Europe, were motivated, at least in part, by a desire for greater ‘fairness’? Incorporation of European laws into our domestic body politic has produced concepts of ‘fairness’ which supplement our common law; for example, our government must take into account the impact of welfare reform upon our children. An offshoot of the European Convention on Human Rights, our much maligned Human Rights Act was informed by both our struggles and those of our European neighbours to establish an institutional mechanism whereby our right not to be tortured could be enforced as a right, rather than a haphazard and piecemeal accumulation of variable and distinct codes in criminal and common law.  

Professor Abulafia’s examples are selective and unconvincing. He argues that ‘the United Kingdom has always been a partner of Europe without being a full participant in it’ immediately after noting its engagement in the Second World War, as a result of obligations to Poland which it shared with France. On what terms this constitutes ‘partnership’ rather than ‘full participation’ is unclear. Anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Britain may not have struck roots as ‘deep’ as those in Nazi Germany, but to argue it ‘never’ established itself firmly here is possible only if we overlook public riots against Jews in the twelfth century, the 350 years between Edward I’s expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and their re-admittance under Oliver Cromwell in 1657, and the raft of negative literary portrayals that have become cornerstones of our culture, from Shakespeare to Dickens. Cromwell, of course, assumed rule during a period of 11 years in the seventeenth century when Britain existed without a monarch. This was a period of constitutional experimentation and turmoil with far-reaching consequences – particularly with regards to parliamentary sovereignty – which is disregarded by the narrative of peaceful evolution so favoured by Historians for Britain.  

Drawing attention to these examples is not to engage in historical tit-for-tat or to generate a series of pedantic squabbles within the historical profession itself. Rather, challenging the details of the narrative deployed calls into question the ‘historical perspective’ on Britain’s relationship with Europe currently on offer from Historians for Britain. The debate to which we are invited requires a careful evaluation of how examples are selected, how they are utilised and to what end. Professor Abulafia acknowledges a ‘long history of British engagement with Europe’, citing amongst his examples ‘English conquests that reached as far as Gascony’. English territories in Gascony had been acquired not through conquest but by an advantageous marriage between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane. The Angevins were hardly enlightened harbingers of peace, but they nonetheless show how it is possible to self-identify as English and as European. To draw the relationship between their English and continental territories as one simply of invasion and occupation – by an England which was not otherwise part of Europe – profoundly mischaracterises the dynastic interactions at play. This inevitably has consequences for the historical perspective made available, presenting a narrative of conflict and difference rather than close association.

It is relatively easy to question the narrative of British exceptionalism offered by Historians for Britain, but trickier to know how to replace it. In part, this is because we do not know the terms of the renegotiation which Historians for Britain deem necessary. They assure us of their belief that ‘a negotiated large change in our relationship with the EU is highly achievable’. ‘If we get the change we need’, they continue, ‘we won’t need to leave’. However, the ‘change we need’ remains as indistinct as the ‘values’ which they claim exclusively for Britain. 

As a leading historian, Professor Abulafia is no doubt aware that the conclusions drawn from research are profoundly affected by the questions asked, and the premises established, at its outset. The same is true of political negotiation. This account of British exceptionalism, and his view that such a premise is an essential precondition of negotiation with Europe, must be challenged; at the very least, it cannot be assumed. If an historical perspective is to inform Britain’s European policy, then it should be acknowledged where that perspective is contestable, and indeed contested. That is the starting point for debate.   

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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