Brexit is not the revenge of the British past, and it’s not about the EU. It is a new politics, with freshly invented pasts and futures.
Our whole national conversation about Brexit is laden with fake history. Remainers say the UK is basically imperialist and thus has always been a reluctant European. On the Brexiter side, Britain has never been European, and only truly found itself when it disengaged – in the Reformation, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Second World War. Both kinds of histories assume deep continuity: in one, a negative hangover from the past; in the other, a true essence that only reveals itself when free of European shackles.
Both accounts are bunk. Things changed radically over time, and the complex balance of Europe/ the world/ the empire kept changing in ways that are too little appreciated.
Take for example the Second World War. Britain and France jointly declared war against Germany, expecting to win. It was never a national war for the UK, but first a European, and then an imperial and internationalist one. But the UK was effectively expelled from Europe, which resulted in it becoming deeply dependent on the USA and Empire.
In terms of power, 1939-1945 was a period of quite spectacular relative decline rather than rebirth. The 1940s and 1950s saw a quite exceptional amount of trade with Empire, the result not of deep history, but the exigencies of war and reconstruction. The British state sought desperately to get back into European markets, to create a European free trade area, and when this was rebuffed to try and enter the EEC in 1961.
British history, like that of other countries over the last 150 years, has been, discontinuous. In economic terms it went from being the greatest free trading nation on earth, to briefly, a more imperial protectionist economy, and then to nationally focussed one. In the 1950s, the Conservatives went from being protectionist and imperialist, and turned decisively to Europe and free trade. More recently the economy has Europeanised and globalised at the same time.
The United Kingdom has gone from being a truly exceptional economy in 1900 (importing half its food) to being, even before joining the EEC in 1973, a nation much like the other large European nations. Yet the myth persists that until 1973 the UK was a free trading global state that locked itself into Fortress Europe.
Brexit is something new, not a throwback. Indeed Brexit has no parallel in twentieth-century British history. For the first time, a major change in policy generated internally has not been one first put forward, debated and refined by a great political party. It is perhaps the first time business has had so little influence. For the first time, the Conservative Party has been incapable of understanding the dynamics of modern capitalism.
It is crucially, as the brilliant instant analysis of Anthony Barnett suggests, little to do with either Europe or Empire. It has more immediate causes – a crisis of legitimacy of the British state, evident since Iraq; and a crisis of representative politics, in England. And of course the fallout from the great financial crisis.
Indeed if there is nostalgia for the past it is for a national and nationalist UK of the 1960s and 1970s, where nearly everything around us from food to cars was British-made. That helps explain why it is the old who voted Brexit, and is a reminder that Brexit is very largely but clearly not exclusively something brought about by Tory voters. The result has been the emergence for the first time in British history of a strong far right. In this, as in so much else, the English nation is not unique.
While the debate about Brexit has been informed by fantastical histories, there are some all too real and relevant historical legacies that have been startlingly ignored. The failure to understand the recent history of Northern Ireland is a stunning example. So too is the failure to appreciate the significance of the legacy of left Labour’s economic nationalism. It is extraordinary, too, how little attention is given to the history of British encouragement of economic liberalisation and of expansion of the EU.
If British history is badly understood, it is little wonder that the recent history of the rest of the world is ignored. Into this vacuum entered a weird British revivalism – incompatible with the critique of the EU – which holds that the UK has emerged once again as a world leading innovator, champion of global free trade, a tier one military power itching to return to the China Station. It is time to get real about our past, present and future.
David Edgerton teaches history at King’s College London, where the “History in light of Brexit” conference will take place on Wednesday 5 June. He is also the author of The Rise & Fall of the British Nation.