1066, Hitler, the Corn Laws… Why are Brexiteers the basic bitches of history?

The sub-GCSE history references of leading pro-Brexit politicians reveal the textbook errors of their project.

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Why are top Brexiteers’ references to history always so… basic?

Boris Johnson, writing in his Telegraph column today, referred to 1066 – surely the cheapest novelty mug in the giftshop of English history.

“If Chequers were adopted it would mean that for the first time since 1066,” he writes, “our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule.”

This is, of course, wrong. As many who know marginally more about history than Johnson are pointing out, he appears to have forgotten the Glorious Revolution, when the Dutch king William of Orange was invited by English nobles in 1688 to invade and overthrow James II. Or even earlier, in 1215, when rebel barons urged Prince Louis of France to come and conquer England after King John refused to abide by Magna Carta.

“ENGLAND. WAS. CONQUERED. BY. THE. DUTCH.” yells my colleague Jonn Elledge.

“Johnson has forgotten 1216 – when the Barons invited French King Louis to take the throne from King John – and 1688 – when nobility invited Dutch King William to take the throne from King James II. Others?” quips Green MEP Molly Scott Cato.

“Harold didn’t acquiesce in 1066. Rather famously he fought a battle at Hastings,” points out columnist Nick Cohen.

But the main problem isn’t the inaccuracy. We know already that Johnson’s grasp of history is rather shaky – not least from his 2014 book The Churchill Factor (“The Germans did not capture Stalingrad, though this book claims they did,” wrote historian Richard Evans in his scathing review for the New Statesman at the time.)

No. The main problem is the sheer basicness of the reference. Why do these Brexiteers only ever have sub-GCSE historical references to wheel out? Less than three months ago, as another example, Jacob Rees-Mogg was warning Theresa May that reneging on her Brexit promise would lead to the same fate of Conservative prime minister Robert Peel when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846.

This was also wrong. History absolved Peel’s decision to put country above party – something Rees-Mogg and other Corn Law-warning Brexiteers appear to have overlooked.

But it’s also such a standard bit of British history, you wonder if they’ve just groped for the easiest bit they can remember from their textbooks, after running out of invocations of Winston Churchill’s patriotic spirit (also a nonsensical comparison, by the way – as my colleague George Eaton points out, Churchill defied establishment Tory opinion, like Peel did, by opposing appeasement in the 1930s).

Rees-Mogg has also compared the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and Trafalgar – during an utterly meaningless speech last year at Conservative Party Conference:

“This is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the Great Reform Bill, it’s the Bill of Rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. We win all of these things… And Trafalgar, absolutely!”

Not sure who wins, Jacob, other than Sparknotes.

And then you move on to the next bit of the syllabus to find incessant contrasts with Nazi Germany. Otherwise known as playing history on the easy setting.

First, there was Michael Gove’s comparison of Remain-backing economists to the Nazi scientists who denounced Albert Einstein in the 1930s, saying “they got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say he was wrong”. (He later apologised for this analogy.) Then there came Johnson’s suggestion that Brussels bureaucrats share Adolf Hitler’s aim of unifying “Europe under a single government”, only with “different methods”.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that Brexiteers, whose whole project is based on a poor reading of history (harking back to a false ideal of the British Empire, equating historical progress with the upward march of UK sovereignty, etc), are bad at historical analogies. But this is textbook twattery in the extreme.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.