No country is an island: the right and wrong ways of thinking with history

The problem is in the kind of history people are thinking with.

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Is it useful to think with history? Or is this an outmoded reflex, as the cultural historian Carl Schorske once suggested, something that came naturally to people in the past two centuries, but does no longer? Historians mostly like to believe the former, and they have certainly been conspicuous in the Brexit debate. There is a brigade in the Brexiteers’ army, their banner inscribed with “Historians for Britain”, who started out supporting David Cameron’s push to renegotiate the terms of membership but now reject his claim that he managed this, and see the country’s future lying in a greater detachment from the EU and greater reliance on the countries of the Commonwealth and the Americas. Hundreds of their scholarly opponents have signed a letter warning that withdrawal from the EU would amount to “condemning ourselves to irrelevance”.

Now Professor Simms, a Cambridge historian of international relations and NS contributing writer, has made his own contribution, one that places him somewhere between the two camps. He sympathises with the Eurosceptic view that we need to recognise what is exceptional about the British political system as it has emerged over the centuries, but dissents from the conclusion that the UK should keep its distance from the European continent. Ending with a plea for a new kind of dispensation within the Union, his book aims to demonstrate that the history of the British isles has never been an isolated one, and that “our island story” has always, in ­reality, been continental.

His brisk survey of more than a millennium is devoted to proving this thesis. Perhaps only in the current febrile climate of opinion in the UK would it be thought worth proving, especially as few scholars on either side would contend today that any other story is plausible. You would have to look back to before the Celts for anything properly autochthonous. Is it not obvious that, whether one explores our monotheistic religious beliefs or our hybrid Germano-Latinate language, the origins of major dimensions of our contemporary life have come from overseas? Even the woad-daubed Picts were probably copying French fashion.

Simms’s focus is on international politics. He describes the making of, first, a unified England and, then, the United Kingdom as responses to external pressures, and charts the shifting strategic horizon of generations of island rulers with only narrow seas between them and the Continent. He draws two lessons from the past which pull him in conflicting directions. The first is that, as Historians for Britain also believe, this country really is special. It is an unusually tolerant place, nicer to its minorities, and it has enjoyed an uninterruptedly representative form of polity for longer than anywhere else, so that the marvel of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law make it – at least in the European context – unique. This is an unabashedly Whiggish portrayal of the development of our political system. But Simms’s second claim is the grimmer one: that British security has always depended on the Continental balance of power, so that standing aside is risky. It is because he views the security threat as trumping all else that Simms believes we cannot afford to turn our back on the EU.

His approach, which is to tell the story through the eternal verities of international relations, raises a few difficulties of method and terminology. It necessitates a kind of juggling between “Britain” and “England”, for one thing; and it rests on the belief that it is meaningful to talk about “Europe” far back into the past, for another. Also, Simms’s approach is to concentrate on power politics, as if the rules of national interest and state power were constant, whereas it is not at all clear that one can even talk about nations before the 18th or 19th centuries at the earliest. Focusing on war and dynastic allegiances, he admits he gives short shrift to questions of economics, or to the flow of ideas and cultural forms. Had he done so, the so-called distinctiveness of English life over the centuries might have seemed a little less distinctive and the purported tolerance of its institutions a little less tolerant.

Some scholars like to portray the past as the outcome of a single operative cause. Once upon a time, Marxist historians postulated that class conflict was the motor of history. A camp of international relations theorists thinks you can boil history down to one thing, too – in their case, to the struggle for power between states. In this way of thinking, which Simms seems largely to share, geography is made to do a lot of heavy lifting and politics slides into geopolitics: Germany sits in the middle of Europe, ergo it will always be a problem for everyone around it; Britain is an island, ergo its interests depend on whether the seas around it constitute protection or not. Rivalry counts for more than co-operation from this perspective, which is why Simms has little to say about liberal criticisms of old-fashioned power politics, and surprisingly little about the role of the United States, a liberal power par excellence, in helping fashion settlements in Europe after two world wars.

Of course, it is fun to penetrate all that federalist vaporising with the hard truths of power. Yet sometimes they turn out not to be truths at all. The seas can amount to one kind of strategic factor at one time, and another later. Military technology changes, and so do the habits of war and the propensity for conflict. Countries are not just land masses and their statesmen, but they are people, too; and societies that are driven by ideas, and ideas can change quite dramatically and quite fast. Germany’s problem today is not an ancient one, but quite new: it is that, although it remains an economic powerhouse across Europe, its conception of continental leadership has changed sharply from anything Frederick the Great, Bismarck or Hitler would have recognised, because its postwar elites continue to prefer to see themselves as guardians of monetary stability first and foremost. The problem with Germany ­today is not that it remains some kind of heir to Nazi schemes for a New Order in Europe, but that its emphatic repudiation of that legacy has led it to underplay the kind of leadership needed to make the Union work.

Britain’s problem may be quite new, too. Let us grant the early emergence of parliamentary governance in its isles. Let us, momentarily, also overlook the hiccups in this process: the delays (for instance, in the achievement of universal suffrage) and perhaps, above all, the colonial experience, with its own rather less democratic story.

The real question is: so what? What difference does the past make to deciding whether we should remain members of the European Union? The answer depends on how fast you think the world is changing.

You may, for instance, believe that the rule of law has unfolded smoothly in the UK since Magna Carta and see no reason why it should not continue to do so provided nasty, interfering Eurocrats and judges can be kept out. Or you may believe that its constitutional history is messier and that, latterly, in particular, new kinds of challenges to constitutional liberties have emerged from within the country rather than outside it – so that Europe may be as likely to help us preserve our freedom as to curtail it.

Similarly, some commentators talk as if the British empire never really went away but just metamorphosed imperceptibly into the dominions and the Anglosphere, waiting there for us to give up our flirtation with Europe and return to our own. A founder of Historians for Britain has suggested that if we leave the Continent, then much of the English-speaking world will remain a vehicle for British greatness. And greatness – real or imagined – remains central to the ­Eurosceptic case, which rarely argues for a Little England, its economy reduced by the loss of Scotland, and the relocation of corporations and finance to the Continent.

At present, the population of the UK is less than 1 per cent of the world population, down from 2.2 per cent in 1900, and its GDP as a proportion of world GDP is down to 3 per cent from above 8 per cent. In themselves, these are not negligible shifts; but they understate the downsizing of Britain’s world role, given that the drop would be more impressive if the resources of the empire in 1900 were taken into account.

So, in reality, and despite Simms’s odd assertion that the country remains the major European great power (not a view, it must be said, shared in Washington), Britain’s position in the world is nothing like it once was. Douglas Hurd’s desire to see it “punching above its weight” will be more and more difficult in future, especially if the vote is in favour of Brexit and the United Kingdom itself begins to fragment.

The world may have changed in other ways, too, not all of them as problematic for the Eurosceptic cause. Simms’s power-­political approach leads him to fear the eternal possibility of conflict. But many people will feel that, pace Cameron, there is no conceivable prospect of a war on the horizon which could threaten the UK, and that, in this telling, Europe is very different from what it was; thus, one oft-touted rationale for remaining in the EU is simply beside the point. Whatever other Europeans may do to themselves, it is unlikely to have big repercussions for us; and, anyway, Nato is still there to tackle strategic threats better than the EU can (at least, pending President Trump’s brave new Nato-less world). This time round, in other words, isolationism makes sense because, whereas in the 19th and mid-20th centuries, Britain really could not stand aside from a continental military commitment, today it can.

Either way, if you think the nature of the UK’s problems today is qualitatively different from those it faced in the past, the study of that past may be a poor guide to what we should do next. Historians may not have a crucial contribution to make to the referendum debate: thinking with history may be less important than thinking through the economics, and the cultural, legal, strategic and demographic implications of staying in or leaving.

Perhaps we should worry less about how historians are affecting the referendum debate than about how the referendum has affected the historians. For a start, a great deal of the writing around Europe and Britain’s role in it, this book included, does not represent anything close, in terms of quality, to the kind of work these writers are capable of producing. Facts are press-ganged into the service of one thesis or another, with results that are anything other than revelatory.

This is not fundamentally just because scholars make poor polemicists. It is, more worryingly, because even historians have become parochial. Perhaps we should not be surprised, given the erosion of modern language teaching in British schools, but astonishingly little of the commentary is seriously comparative or displays any consciousness of how the Brexit debate, and the kinds of bizarre claims that are made within it, comes across to the rest of the world. What exactly is so remarkable about the British constitution, compared to others? Did the English nation come into existence so much earlier than others? These are not questions that can be answered except through comparison; and that is complicated, because it would demand talking not about some undifferentiated Europe but about its component parts and peoples. Simms, a fine diplomatic historian, does more of this than most, but even in Britain’s Europe one gets the impression that “Europe” means the Germans and the French most of the time. One would take Eurosceptic historians more seriously if they gave some indication of being able, once in a while, to see Britain from outside, to gauge its past and its possible future from across the Atlantic, or from Beijing or Melbourne.

There is, in short, nothing wrong in thinking with history; indeed, it is probably indispensable to any properly informed discussion of Britain’s future. The problem is in the kind of history people are thinking with. The insights we need are those that allow us to assess the country’s place in the world and how that has changed over time; and, simultaneously, to explore the ways its neighbours have changed as well. Britain has moved in the space of a century from global hegemon to a ditsy and increasingly introverted hanger-on in the circles of world power: we need histories that provide a genuinely global perspective on the implications that follow from this.

Brendan Simms ends his book with a chapter the seriousness of which is hard to judge. In it, he pushes to the limit his praise of British exceptionalism by suggesting that what everyone needs in future is the construction of a single eurozone state on Anglo-American constitutional principles, with a US-style elected president and with English as the official language of government. The idea is not original – it was mooted in different circumstances some years ago by Larry Siedentop in his Democracy in Europe – and it remains as implausible as it was then. If only they were like us, is what it says. Why can’t they see how superior we are? Let’s turn Europe into Britain. Is this almost fabulous complacency the best we can hope for?

Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia University. His latest book, Governing the World: The History of an Idea , is published by Penguin.

Britain's Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation  by Brendan Simms is published by Allen Lane (352pp, £20).

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe