Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated

An open letter in response to the Historians for Britain campaign. 

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Albrecht Dürer, 1526, engraved in Nuremberg, Germany.
Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Albrecht Dürer, 1526, engraved in Nuremberg, Germany.

'Grammar school children know French no better than they know their left heel', the 14th-century Cornish translator John Trevisa wrote mournfully in 1385. This was a late turnaround for Trevisa who, in 1329, had worried about the negative impact on English culture from Latin and French; 56 years later he feared that abandoning other languages would disconnect England from a wider world. The debate over the political, cultural, and economic place of Britain within Europe may seem particularly fractious in the current climate, but it has been around for centuries. 

The claim that Britain is exceptional when compared to the rest of Europe, as argued by Professor David Abulafia in a History Today article on behalf of Historians for Britain, is nothing new either. It dominated scholarship in Britain for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but has been comprehensively overhauled in more recent decades. Professor Abulafia writes that his organisation 'aims to facilitate . . . debate' over Britain's relationship with Europe by offering a 'historical perspective'. We welcome this invitation to debate, but we are unconvinced by the perspective provided.

On their website, Historians for Britain state that 'the terms of Britain's EU membership are undermining . . . Britain's values' and must therefore be renegotiated. These values, allegedly 'peculiar to our shores', stretch from 'the ideas of common law and parliamentary sovereignty to the struggle for greater democracy and fairness'. Britain's 'ancient institutions' have experienced a 'degree of continuity . . . unparalleled in continental Europe'. Such continuity would indeed be spectacular, but it is illusory. Britain's past is neither so exalted nor so unique.

Parliamentary sovereignty was not a feature of the British political landscape until the late 17th century, and emerged from revolutions that embroiled Scotland, Ireland and England in probably the most devastating bloodshed these countries witnessed before the 20th century. This hardly bespeaks an 'uninterrupted' connection to a medieval past, nor did it lead directly to 'greater democracy and fairness'. Universal suffrage came in 1928, later than in other European countries. Common law (which is English, not British) may be a peculiar system, but it is not the only such system in Europe, and laws in Britain and Ireland have always been influenced in practice and principle by European legal codes, long before the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Nor has Britain escaped the darker side of Europe's past. While – as Professor Abulafia says – antisemitism did not take root as deeply in Britain as in Nazi Germany, it nevertheless has a long history here. The 12th century witnessed accusations of ritual murder against Jews, which soon spread to Europe and provoked violence, while Edward I was the first (but certainly not the only) European king to expel Jews from his entire kingdom; they were not readmitted to England for three-and-a-half centuries. A raft of negative literary portrayals have become cornerstones of British culture, from Shakespeare to Dickens, and the Marconi scandal, only a few years after the Dreyfus affair, reminds us that 20th-century British history was uncomfortably similar to European history in this respect too.

Political, social, cultural, and economic life in Britain has always depended on, drawn upon, and given back to Europe. Since prehistory, migration into and out of these islands has defined their population and created generations of families with strong connections to Europe and elsewhere. Professor Abulafia notes that medieval English monarchs ruled provinces of France; until George III British monarchs styled themselves as rulers of France, looking back longingly to those former possessions and signalling their preoccupation with prestige among European nations, while from George I to William IV they were also Electors of Hanover. The centrality of Christianity to Britain's cultural past makes sense only with reference to the broader world of Christendom, both before and after the Reformation. As commercial and imperial networks began to expand in what we now call globalisation, these connections have developed far beyond Europe in both beneficial and devastating ways, but remain essential to our understanding of Britain in the past and the present. 

More fundamentally, 'Britain' cannot be treated as a bloc: as Professor Abulafia acknowledges, Scotland's (and Ireland's) relations with Europe were separate from those of England at least until the 18th century. More obviously, Europe is no bloc either, and to think of it as such flattens a complex collection of many communities, each with their own distinctive, but not isolated, history. Besides this, a narrative of national exceptionalism is far from exceptional. Polish and Icelandic schoolchildren are taught that their ancestors pioneered liberty and parliamentary government. So are pupils in the US and many other countries.

We challenge this narrative, because it does not fit with the evidence we have encountered in our own research, and this approach, because it does not provoke debate but rather presents a foregone conclusion. We think that a history that emphasises Britain's differences and separation from Europe (or elsewhere) narrows and diminishes our parameters, making our history not exceptional but undernourished. Britain's past – and, therefore, its future – must be understood in the context of a complex, messy, exciting, and above all continuous interaction with European neighbours and indeed with the rest of the world.

This response was composed by David Andress, Richard Blakemore, Thomas Charlton, Neil Gregor, Rachel Moss, Natalia Nowakowska, Charlotte Riley and Mark Williams. You can see a full list of signatories here (PDF). 

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