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24 February 2021

The Brexiteer’s guide to history

In his new account of why Britain left the EU, Robert Tombs abandons objectivity for polemic.

By Richard J Evans

L’Angleterre”, the great French political scientist André Siegfried was wont to say in beginning his Sorbonne lectures on the British Isles, “est une île”, and he would stop there, silently inviting his listeners to ponder the significance of this basic geographical fact. A geographical determinist by conviction, he specialised in ascribing long-term stabilities in French voting patterns to the varieties of soil and settlement where the voters lived.

Of course, “England” is no more an island, least of all a “sovereign island”, than “Great Britain” is. The historian Norman Davies put it more accurately in his bestselling book The Isles, which pays due attention to Scotland, Ireland, Wales and numerous offshore entities from the Isle of Man to the Shetland Isles, and does not confuse them all with England, as the French are liable to do. This Sovereign Isle promises to follow Siegfried closely. (“Geography,” the author declares, “comes before history.”) But there is more to it than that, of course.

Robert Tombs, who for a long time taught French and European history at Cambridge, has published many major books including an excellent history of 19th- century France and an entertaining survey, written with his French wife Isabelle, of what the British and the French have thought of each other over the centuries. Equipped with dual Franco-British citizenship, he is uniquely well placed to view the relationship between England and the Continent from both sides of the Channel.

Tombs is a confirmed Brexiteer. But he knows well enough that England is not an island, and that Siegfried’s geographical determinism has been undermined at many points by later researchers. His opening chapter, like those of the many other books that try to explain Brexit as the outcome of historical forces, trots rapidly through the history of the British Isles from the Romans to the present. But he is too good a historian to repeat the tired old clichés about Britain never having been invaded since 1066 (“Until Nelson’s time, the islands’ history was one of innumerable raids and invasions, at least nine of which since the Norman Conquest have overthrown governments,” he points out).

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The English Channel was easy to cross and did not form an effective barrier to invasion except under specific historical circumstances – history does come before geography, then, in this case – and he reminds us that, in the Middle Ages, the ruling English elites spoke French and spent a lot of time fighting and politicking on the Continent. Over lengthy periods England was part of, or closely linked to, Continental European kingdoms, whether Danish (under Cnut the Great), Norman (under William I and his successors), Angevin (under Henry II and his sons), Spanish (under Philip II), Dutch (under William III) or Hanoverian (under George I, II and III and William IV).

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Britain was a European state in the Middle Ages and for a long while after. And the Reformation – far from being “Britain’s first Brexit” as ignorant politicians declare – “did not separate the islands from the Continent”, Tombs writes. “For two centuries, it drew them more deeply in.” This was partly through the politics of alliances and alignments, and partly because the Reformation imported into Britain the conflict between German and Swiss Protestantism on the one hand, and Roman Catholicism on the other, with devastating effects.

Tombs’s sharp historical eye doesn’t have much space for the nostalgic myths of empire that have intoxicated so many Brexiteers. “Having an empire had not been the source of Britain’s power or wealth,” he says. “Empire had been in many ways a political, strategic and economic liability.” He rightly mocks the Brexiteers’ “nostalgic obsession with boyhood memories of a Victorian golden age of unrivalled power which had never really existed, of all-conquering gunboats and imperious proconsuls in cocked hats”.

All of this is admirably independent-minded and well argued. The first part of this book should indeed be made compulsory reading for all Brexiteers. After about page 20, however, things begin seriously to go downhill. It’s rather like a modern version of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The amiable and eminently reasonable Dr Tombs-Jekyll I remember from my time as his colleague in Cambridge drinks a strong potion of Brexit ideology and is transformed into the aggressive and polemical Mr Tombs-Hyde, jettisoning in the process almost everything that makes him such a good historical writer and teacher in his normal professional life.


Membership of the EU, says Tombs-Hyde, has been a total waste of time and money for Britain. It has brought no economic benefits (“there is no evidence that membership of the successive European communities has done anything at all to stimulate the UK’s economic growth”). It has brought in hundreds of thousands of economic migrants who have taken away Englishmen’s jobs (“Between 2005 and 2007, 540,000 incomers found jobs, and 270,000 British workers lost them”). It finally became clear in 2016 that “Britain had no significant influence within the EU – the dénouement of a 40-year illusion”.

Corrupt, failing, divided and weak, the EU itself has been an economic disaster and it is clearly about to collapse (its “fissiparous tendencies” are now, he says, “approaching a critical stage”). The EU was from the outset an anti-democratic project. The founding fathers thought fascism was the result of an excess of unenlightened democracy that brought authoritarian regimes to power, so the answer was to take control away from the people and place it in the hands of unelected bureaucratic elites who would push for an ever-increasing centralisation of power in Brussels, in their own hands.

The British vote to leave the EU was therefore a vote to take back the democratic power of decision-making for the people. It wasn’t an example of English nationalism: the Brexit vote was generally typical of mass disillusion with the EU among European populations. If other countries had held a vote, he says, they would probably have voted Leave. However, this claim sits uneasily with the more reasonable argument by Tombs-Jekyll that the desire for a united Europe was weak here because Britain had neither been ruled by a dictator nor occupied by a hostile power in the Second World War.

In any case, there’s no evidence that disillusion with the EU is widespread among the citizens of its member countries. According to a 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center, across 14 EU member countries, a median of 67 per cent hold favourable views of the European Union.

The EU has been through some severe tests in the past couple of years, notably Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic; but it shows no signs of breaking up. Unity among the 27 has been strengthened by the Brexit negotiations, which have also deterred many supporters of Grexit, Frexit and the rest from trying to go it alone. Early ambitions of creating a kind of United States of Europe have long since faded, if they were ever realistic in the first place. Tombs-Hyde fears the project of “ever closer union” between the member states of the EU is a growing threat to democracy: had Britain stayed as “a participating member of an embryonic European federation”, it “would not have been a sovereign democratic nation”. Tombs-Jekyll, however, declares that “ever closer union” is an example of the “magical thinking” of the elites. In any case, if the EU is about to collapse, why should anyone worry too much about the idea of “ever closer union”? “Having your cake and eating it” may have been one of the principal declared aims of the UK government in negotiating Brexit, but it seems to be a common mode of thinking in Brexitland as well.

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Most Europeans appear to think of the EU primarily as a means – not always successful but definitely always worth pursuing – of improving economic performance and raising living standards. In this, Britain, during its 40 years of membership, played a notable role: its greatest contribution was Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of the single market, now abandoned by her successors, but there were many others as well. It’s simply nonsense to say Britain never had any significant influence on the EU. For many Leave voters, of course – more than a quarter, according to opinion polls – immigration was the key issue, but the idea that immigrants from Poland and Romania were taking jobs away from Brits was a fantasy. Many of them, for example in the fields of East Anglia, were doing jobs that the British were unwilling to do themselves; or alternatively, they were highly skilled people, including doctors and health workers, who have contributed enormously to the UK.

The specious economic arguments Tombs-Hyde presents, many of them taken from Eurosceptic economists and Conservative think tanks such as Policy Exchange, amount to the kind of cherry picking of evidence that Tombs-Jekyll would never dream of indulging in when doing his academic historical work. We live in a complex, economically interconnected world, in which the UK exports services, especially financial services, in return for goods in which it is not self-sufficient and never can be. The basic fact is that the EU is the UK’s major trading partner: the EU accounted for around 45 per cent of the UK’s exports in 2014 while 53 per cent of the UK’s imports of goods and services that year came from the rest of the EU. How could it be otherwise when Europe is the UK’s nearest neighbour?

The Remain campaign’s warnings that Brexit would endanger all this were effectively dismissed by Leavers as “Project Fear”. However, looking at what is happening now, many of those warnings seem to have been understated. According to Tombs, “early alarms that large parts of the City [of London] would decamp to Paris, Frankfurt or Dublin… soon proved hollow”. They don’t look so hollow now, and even the UK government is advising British firms to set up headquarters in the EU to avoid extra costs and red tape.

Tombs-Hyde pours scorn on the warnings issued by “Project Fear” that “lorries would queue for miles both to leave and to enter the country”. Perhaps he should have gone to Kent to see what was happening there in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. Trade across the Channel and the North Sea has been badly hit by the new rules and regulations. Small businesses are declaring they can no longer afford to trade as a result. The creation of a customs barrier in the Irish Sea has already angered unionists to the extent that checks were suspended under threats of violence against those who are supposed to carry them out.

Working out exactly how much EU membership benefited the British economy is a complicated business; the leading economic historian Nick Crafts reckons over the 40 years it amounts to about 10 per cent of GDP. Working out the damage done by Brexit is impossible; partly because it’s too soon to tell, partly because it’s difficult to separate it from the impact of the Covid pandemic. Britons are already realising, however, that Brexit was a bad idea. Recent opinion polls have recorded strong majorities in favour of the view that Britain was wrong to leave the EU. If the vote was held today, Remain would win decisively. Tombs makes no mention of this shift of opinion, which began not long after the referendum itself.


Tombs-Hyde devotes many pages to complaining about the way in which prominent Remainers allegedly “assumed an intellectual and moral superiority over their opponents, whom they endlessly dismissed as ignorant, xenophobic and nostalgic” (though Tombs-Jekyll’s own dismissal of the Brexiteers’ imperial nostalgia has apparently been forgotten by this stage). He complains about the “stifling consensus” in favour of Remain among academics “led by massed vice-chancellors” that apparently left Leavers afraid to speak their mind. All this lachrymose prose somehow manages to convey the impression it was the Leavers who lost and who feel victimised, not the Remainers. Yet, in his acknowledgements, Jekyll-Tombs warmly thanks the many academic colleagues who have given his project their encouragement over the past four years. Not so stifling, then.

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At the end of the book, Tombs-Hyde proposes the “Anglosphere” and the Commonwealth as a basis for a “global Britain” to replace the EU. This is not the nostalgia Tombs-Jekyll dismissed at the start of the book, he says, but a forward-looking abandonment of “a declining Continent” for global connections marked by “language, similarity of legal systems and robust attachment to democracy”. Britain can use the “affection” in which the Commonwealth “is manifestly held by so many of its citizens”. But many Commonwealth countries are far from democratic; the Commonwealth has long since ceased to mean very much for a large number of them; and democracy is looking fragile even in the biggest and richest of the Anglosphere nations, the United States. Nor is there any solid evidence to suggest Europe is declining; rather, the reverse. In this case, geography really does come before history, and Britain’s future inevitably lies with its nearest neighbours, who form the largest trading bloc in the world. 

This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe
Robert Tombs
Allen Lane, 224pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks