The History Boys vote Brexit

6 mins. to read
The History Boys vote Brexit

Finally, the groves of academe have awoken to the sound of gnashing teeth. An assembly of the most eminent British historians has formed a campaign group called Historians for Britain[i]. Their aim is to advance the argument, from a historical perspective of course, that the forthcoming UK-EU IN-OUT referendum is a historic opportunity to go our own way. In fact, they believe that it was a historical aberration that we ever got involved in that show at all.

Historians for Britain is led by Chairman, Professor David Abulafia (Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge since 2000), and a panel of highly distinguished (and media-savvy) historians whose names will be familiar to anyone who reads history and/or watches high-end telly. They include Dr Sheila Lawlor, Dr Andrew Roberts, Dr David Starkey and Professor Brian Young.

Their research aims to inform the debate about Britain’s EU membership, articulate some of the problems that exist in the EU today and to analyse the historical myths that surround the EU. They have sought to expose how former British political leaders failed to tell the public about the consequences of EU membership.

On Tuesday morning (12 January) Professor Gwythian Prins of the University of Buckingham (who is of Anglo-Dutch heritage) was asked by John Humphreys of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about his essay Beyond the Ghosts: Does EU Membership Erode Britain’s Global Influence? This essay is now available on the Historians for Britain website[ii]. It is long and rather academic in style, but I have now had the chance to read it and I thought I might summarise some of its main arguments for practical folk whose trade is money.

Professor Prins sets out to show how the decision-making process in the EU is incompatible with the political traditions of the United Kingdom and that anyway, the EU urgently needs radical change. Now 58 years old, the EU was the future once; but it is now mired in crisis.  Its two main achievements – the single currency and open borders – are now under severe strain.

First, the currency union was misconceived. Greece, because it is unable to devalue, is being tortured slowly in order to remain a member. Meanwhile, Finland, one of the most competitive countries in Europe, is unable to revalue. Its parliament will debate exiting the Euro soon.

Second, the Schengen system of open borders did not anticipate either the upswing in Islamist terrorism or the refugee crisis. The decision to impose refugee quotas on the former Eastern Bloc countries, which have little historic experience of religious and cultural diversity, has fundamentally changed sentiment amongst Germany’s eastern neighbours.

We Brits might be thankful that we are aloof from both the currency union and open borders. (Actually, we have Sir John Major to thank – as I have mentioned before). But at the historic juncture, we are entitled, if not obliged, to weigh up our interests in a thoughtful way. And besides, on many objective measures, Britain is different from Europe – and more dynamic. We are a soft-power superpower which also has a relatively dynamic economy.

Moreover, it is simply not possible to unpick the intricate tapestry of consecutive EU treaties to which we are all subjected. Each treaty forbids the revision of its predecessor. Mr Cameron’s four demands (as submitted to EU Council President Donald Tusk on 09 November last year) were pretty small beer, as even if they are accepted (which is doubtful), they will not address the fundamental issues that the UK has with the EU.

The EU of today has become a modern Napoleonic league – a supra-national power that seeks to control its population on the basis of shared ideals rather than popular democratic consent. (Just look at how Greek popular sentiment, as expressed by the referendum of 05 July 2015, was steamrolled aside). We should return to the Castlereagh Doctrine (1820), neatly summarised by Churchill in 1930 as follows: We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not compromised.

Interestingly, the ritual humiliation of Syriza last summer did not go unnoticed by the British left. We still don’t know on which side Mr Corbyn will campaign. But then, says Professor Prins, the hard left never truly aims to win elections, but rather to discredit liberal democracy itself.

There is a fundamental difference in thinking between Britain and largely Francophone Europe. The British regard their freedoms as inherited benefits of a system which has evolved over many centuries. The European model, first established in the French Revolution, is grounded in the abstract notion of fundamental human rights (which by the way are subject to continual reinterpretation by the courts). Since New Labour’s Human Rights Act of 1998, itself a desperate attempt to harmonise English Common Law with continental norms, it has become common in the UK to regard the acquisition of social privileges – housing, central heating, ownership of a computer games console, whatever – as human rights, in total contrast to Edmund Burke’s principles of natural inheritance, which defined British government for centuries. If you want to see how far the continental human rights culture can be contorted, look no further than the difficulties that states (especially the UK) have had in deporting undesirables.

There were two ghosts, or myths, argues Professor Prins that got us to this absurd impasse. On the British side, after the Suez debacle in 1956 was the spectre of decline. On the European side the spectre of war haunted all diplomacy. Both of these ghosts should now be slain. Britain is, if anything, a rising power which has recovered from its post-colonial trauma; and a post EU Europe would not descend into war.

Britain is now a captive of an economically declining region at a time when there is a dynamic Anglosphere out there, most of which resides within the Commonwealth. Thanks to decades of quiet diplomacy by HM The Queen, the Commonwealth is still relatively well-disposed to the old colonial power, despite the miserable treatment our elected leaders have meted out to its members over decades. I’ve been writing about India in recent months as a case in point – an Anglophone rising power with which we could certainly enjoy a special relationship.

Britain is a key player in all the major global groupings and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Despite Cameron’s cuts, our armed forces are superior to those of any big EU member. Yet even the Europhile Sir Humphreys at the FCO fear that they will soon be neutered by Brussels. So the EU has become not a force multiplier for British diplomacy, but an inhibitor.

If we stay, EU energy policy, which favours “renewables” in favour of fracking, could seriously undermine our energy security.

General de Gaulle talked about the French rider on the German horse. In 1962 he affirmed that Europe was the way for France to regain what she ceased to be at Waterloo. The British were never going to be a pivotal part of the project – they have a different mind-set. It’s time, implies Professor Prins, to face up to history.

Essays like this are not, of themselves, going to sway the vote which Mr Cameron indicated on 10 January might even take place in the early summer. I am still doubtful if it will be so early, especially given the trend in opinion polls. And events might overtake us.

But this kind of contribution to the debate is evidence of what could be a historical trend of thinking that will do us no harm. The British (especially the English) are not in thrall to intellectuals, as the French are. But they still heed them. Don’t let anyone say that the OUTs are isolationist xenophobes – they are nothing of the sort.

For my part, though I admitted in my piece in the MI December magazine that I am agnostic on Europe, I’m beginning to feel that there is only one outcome that will work in the long term. More on that soon…


[i] See:

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