Following the surprise result of the General Elections earlier this month historians in Britain have reopened the debate about Europe. Depending on where you stand, Britain is either part of Europe, or a strange place across the Channel you can travel to.
The Historians for Britain who have come out in favour of ‘fundamental changes (to be) made to the terms of our EU membership’ are clearly of the latter school, fearing a loss of British identity inside the European Union. In a controversial contribution to the pages of History Today magazine they have gathered historical arguments to show ‘how the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours’ to show why it can’t integrate any further in the EU.
Referring to Britain’s common law, its long parliamentary history and its ancient monarchy, Historians for Britain have made the case for a ‘degree of continuity … unparalleled in continental Europe.’
A manifesto for little Britain
Their manifesto for a little Britain based on the old chestnut of British exceptionalism has been countered by the Historians for History, who insist that history should not be used for political propaganda and ‘take issue with the statement’s highly reductive distortion of the history of the United Kingdom.’
They highlight that, ‘(i)n terms of ancient systems of democracy, Greece clearly has a much stronger claim than Britain’, while also drawing attention to the fact that the long-standing British monarchy was many times in foreign hands, starting with the Norman Conquest of 1066 followed by the Glorious Invasion from the Netherlands in 1688 and the take-over of the British monarchy by the Hanoverians hailing from the German lands.
In particular though Historians for History have objected to the Historians for Britain’s claim that the ‘British political temper has been milder than that in the larger European countries’, which sounds odd when we think of the English Civil Wars of the mid-17th century or the darker aspects of 19th- and 20th-century British History.
Unlike Historians for Britain, however, Historians for History distance themselves from any political agenda. They are defending an objective study of history, not the EU.
I sympathise with Historians for History and would be glad to sign their statement. It is undeniable though that our understanding of history shapes both our identity and our political choices. Conversely, our background has an influence on the kind of history we are interested in.
As a German immigrant in the UK, my research on seventeenth-century English republican thought has almost naturally drifted towards an exploration of the relationship between the British Isles and continental Europe as I have struggled to understand the myth of British exceptionalism.
Looking at the English republican exiles in Europe after the Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660, I have found many transterritorial connections going back several generations that helped regicides and republicans on the run to find help and support and safe places to stay on the Continent.
Asking the right questions
Some refugees benefited from family connections, others from acquaintances made during their Grand Tour, some had military contacts, others used merchants who had established themselves across the Channel, and some were able to tap into existing Protestant communities first used by the Marian exiles a century earlier. A study of exile can thus tell us a lot about connections we never knew existed, mainly because we never bothered to find out about them; or, we knew they existed but we weren’t really interested in them because we didn’t see their significance. The same is true for many other aspects of history.
The answers we find are always shaped by the questions we decide to ask. What we have to learn therefore is to ask the right questions – without prejudice.