Linda Colley on Brexit

June 14, 2016
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”

This is the question on which citizens of the United Kingdom will vote on June 23. Historians have actively participated in the debate during the lead up to the national plebiscite. A group of 42 calling themselves Historians for Britain have advocated leaving the European Union, while a much larger group of historians have signed a letter saying that leaving the EU will “condemn Britain to irrelevance.” Given the long interwoven fates of the countries that now make up the European Union, contributions by historians are vital to understanding the geopolitics of remaining or leaving.

The text that follows intervenes in this debate at the pinnacle of government. Last month historian and Princeton University professor Linda Colley spoke at 11 Downing Street, which is the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the equivalent in Britain to the Secretary of the Treasury, and a senior member of the cabinet. Colley is one of the foremost historians of the British Empire, nationalism, and identity. Her talk, reproduced here in a slightly edited version, is an excellent instance of the vital role that historians can and should be playing in local, national, and international political debate and policy-making.

One of the most common phrases in the media and in political debate in recent decades has been “Britain and Europe”: a formulation that suggests that these two entities—“Britain” on the one hand, “Europe” on the other—are at once somehow monolithic and also distinct from the other. A Google Ngram search into language usage in these islands demonstrates however that before the Second World War, this phrase “Britain and Europe” was employed far more rarely, and there are good historical reasons why. In messy historical reality, as distinct from much present-day polemic, “Britain” and “Europe” have rarely followed entirely distinctive paths, any more than they have ever either of them been monolithic structures.

To be sure, “Britain” is made up of hundreds of islands, and notions of geographic insularity have been important for British self-imagining. But, for much of human history, travelling by sea was easier and faster than travelling long distances overland, so being geographically insular often worked in practice to facilitate—not obstruct—multifarious British contacts with other European countries. To be sure, too, Britain once possessed a mighty maritime empire, and those Brexiteers who argue that Britain should therefore pursue a variety of global alliances are correct. But onetime maritime empire is actually one of the many things that Britain has in common with many other EU states. Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium all at one time invaded other stretches of the globe. So did Spain, which—before 1800—had a bigger maritime empire than Britain did. By the same token, it is certainly true that Britain has often gone to war with other European states. On occasions—as some Brexiteers point out—this British bellicosity has been in order to prevent a rival European power from becoming over-mighty. Historical accuracy requires us to recognize however that it was sometimes Britain itself that threatened the European balance of power, and that while (along with most other European countries) it has indeed frequently warred with its neighbors, it has usually only done so in alliance with other European powers. Read more at the American Historical Association blog.