By Fiona Whelan and Kieran Hazzard
Historians for Britain consists of a group of scholars attempting to use history to push a political agenda by utilising history facts to aid in the debate about the relationship between Britain and the EU, but also to justify a renegotiation of Britain’s position within the EU. Representing the group, David Abulafia of the University of Cambridge wrote in History Today: ‘Historians for Britain aims to facilitate that debate’. However, the glaring historical inaccuracies in their ‘manifesto’, coupled with the judicious inclusion and exclusion of key facts means that they do not want to facilitate debate, but rather dictate it.
Historians for Britain claim that ‘the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours’. To do so, Abulafia cites numerous examples of ‘uniqueness’ in relation to European counterparts. He claims that Britain had not ‘favoured the intense nationalism’ of European countries, was almost immune to fascism and communism, but perhaps most galling is the assertion that ‘antisemitism never struck deep roots here’. Any medievalist, and frankly any historian, should be aware of the 1290 edict of Edward I formally expelling the Jews from England, and the persecutions and massacres suffered, such as those at London and York which preceded the expulsion. To ignore that aspect of history, and claim ‘uniqueness’ amongst Europe for tolerance, is not just bad history, it is dangerous too. It results in a sense of superiority, along with the unsettling assumption that one history is better than another, that one country is better than another, when the reality is that all history is unique in relation to another country.
In pursuit of this ideal and ‘unique’ British history, Historians for Britain claim a nearly unbroken line of continuity in law, monarchy, and universities. For example, Abulafia states that: ‘But – allowing for occasional coups d’état by Henry VII and William of Orange – Britain has not been torn apart by invasion since 1066’. It is convenient history to claim that William of Orange taking the throne in 1688 was merely a coup d’état. The Glorious Revolution is frequently referred to as an invasion, but that does not suit the narrative Historians for Britain want to promote. As a result, there is no mention of internal rifts which broke that vaunted ‘continuity’; Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians are judiciously excluded. As a marker of British ‘uniqueness’ Abulafia claims that: ‘ancient institutions, such as the monarchy and several universities, have survived (and evolved) with scarcely a break over many centuries’. One might think that the Civil War and beheading of Charles I represented more than ‘scarcely a break’, but apparently not. With respect to continuous universities, Paris, Bologna, and Montpellier may well have something to say about that.
However, there is a larger inherent problem with Historians for Britain, and that rests with the definition of Britain. James I declared himself King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland in 1604 and it is simply bad historical practice to apply the term Great Britain from the medieval period until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Their account of British history is deeply Anglo-centric; Scotland features only when it suits the argument. Utterly ignored is Scotland’s separate identity and history, both prior to and after the union with England. Nor can Scottish nationalism be simply brushed aside in the manner Abulafia would like. From at least the Declaration of Arbroath, to the Jacobite Risings though to the modern rise of the SNP and the Independence referendum, Scottish identity has both embraced Britishness, while also seeking to define a separate identity. Irish nationalism, which grew exactly when it was part of Great Britain, and indeed Ireland’s relationship to Britain are similarly swept under the carpet, along with any historical details which disrupt the narrative of a homogenous, tranquil and conservative Britain.
Empire is another thorny point. Abulafia writes that ‘until the second half of the 20th century, Britain still ruled over vast tracts of the globe very far from Europe. Becoming European might be seen as a reaction to ceasing to be imperial, or at least to the loosening of ties with the growing Commonwealth’, yet it is a false dichotomy. Britain had always conceived of itself primarily as a European power, one which held colonies like many other European states. Thus the country did not simply become European in 1973 as the article tacitly suggests, it always has been, and continues to be, European. But of course, such truths would deny the ‘uniqueness’ of British history which Historians for Britain are so desperate to establish.
Beyond the historical problems of their argument, is the larger question of what Historians for Britain seeks to achieve. Britain’s relationship with Europe is described as one where ‘the United Kingdom has always been a partner of Europe without being a full participant in it’, which situates it with the Conservative agenda to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. Despite this agenda they avoid all mention of Conservative war hero Winston Churchill, who in his Zurich speech of 1946 called for the ‘European Family’ to establish a ‘United States of Europe’. The Conservative Party, having decided to help build that project, now wish to reap the benefits of the EU without accepting the responsibilities of membership.
Historians for Britain are entitled to share that agenda, but they must uphold the standards that historians hold themselves to. Honesty and transparency in the use of source material, not manipulating the truth through omission and lack of referencing sources, and ultimately not exploiting history for political gains. Too often historians bemoan the fact that their voices are not heard in contemporary politics. When that opportunity arises, historical standards need to be maintained; we should not allow this historical approach to set a precedent for historians to have a voice in the political future of Great Britain.
* The full article can be found here:
Kieran is a PhD student at King’s College London, researching the political philosophy of Imperialism during the early nineteenth century. His theses focuses on the application of liberal constitutional principles to colonial India by British Radicals and their rejection by the Tory and Whig governments. His wider interests include the history of political thought and social conditions during the early Industrial Revolution.
Fiona is an associate editor at The History Vault. She recently completed her doctorate in history at the University of Oxford where her research focused on social and cultural history of the medieval period, especially in relation to the construction of behaviour and manners in twelfth-century England.