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How the Brexiteers broke history

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their allies propagate a confused nostalgic fantasy of “global Britain”, wartime heroism and an English struggle for liberty.

Politicians have always used history to bolster their arguments in one way or another, plundering the past for examples that seem to shore up their position. They pull out historical parallels with current events because these seem to tell us not only where we’ve come from and where we are, but, most importantly, where we are going. History can provide encouragement or warning, according to the politician’s purpose: past events show us what we can expect if we do nothing to ward off a clear and present danger, or what we can look forward to if we take the course of action they advocate.

Yet the past can be an unreliable guide to the present, and more often than not it resists politicians’ attempts to co-opt it in their own interests. Unless they pay it the respect it is due, they too often get caught out massaging and manipulating the facts, or interpreting them in ways that the evidence does not in the end support.

In our age of “alternative facts” and “post-truth”, where opinion seems all and evidence is pushed aside in the interests of partisanship, manipulation of the past to fit the political agendas of the present has become all-pervasive. Historians, whatever their views on current events, need to call out those who would prefer to create myths rather than respect what actually happened. Grounding our politics on myths that bear little relation to the truth can be a dangerous business. It can encourage an irrational and impulsive approach to politics rather than planned and prepared policies based on a careful appraisal of the facts.

Brexit in particular has generated a mass of spurious historical generalisations and misleading historical analogies. Some politicians at least have been calling attention to this, though not, it seems, in the UK. “I would say respectfully,” commented the European Commission’s chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, on 1 October, “that we would all benefit – and in particular foreign affairs ministers – from opening a history book from time to time.”

Schinas was referring to the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who in his speech to the 2018 Conservative party conference accused the European Union of trying to “punish” the United Kingdom for leaving. “What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream?” Hunt asked. “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving. The lesson from history is clear. If you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish, it will grow – and we won’t be the only ones that will want to escape.”

It was not surprising that the European Commission found the comparison of the EU with the Soviet Union offensive. But others did, too. Particularly outraged were representatives of the post-communist states in eastern Europe, which had lived under Soviet rule between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Did the Red Army force you to join?” a former Polish foreign minister asked Hunt in disbelief. “How many millions has Brussels exterminated? Gulag for demanding a referendum on independence?”

More common among Brexiteers has been the idea that the European Union represents Hitler’s Third Reich in a new form. As Boris Johnson put it, the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels shared Hitler’s aim of bringing the whole of “Europe under a single government” only with “different methods” (the Nazis had no intention of doing this, as it happens, nor of course do the bureaucrats of Brussels, whatever the methods). Historians could have easily put him right. But nobody seems to be listening to them – or indeed reading any history books.

The Brexiteers’ contempt for experts found expression in Michael Gove’s comparison of scientists who favoured Remain with their predecessors in 1930s Germany who denounced Albert Einstein because he was a Jew, when “they got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say he was wrong”. Gove later apologised for this (and in fact the majority of German physicists accepted Einstein’s theories, despite the regime’s attempt to rubbish them).

Yet he was still on record as saying that “the British public have had enough of experts”, taking as his example economists working for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Whatever happened to the Tory party’s traditionally close ties to business? Gone, it seems. Johnson expressed the same point more succinctly while speaking to diplomats at a private event: “Fuck business.”

References to “Merkel’s Reich” abound in the rhetoric of the Brexiteers. “The Fourth Reich is here – without a shot being fired,” proclaimed Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph in 2016. Of course, Heffer – who also writes for the New Statesman – knows too much about history really to believe in this rhetorical overkill: what he’s talking about is nothing more than what he sees as Germany’s economic domination of Europe. He is not predicting that Merkel is going to invade France, or exterminate six million Jews, or imprison her opponents in concentration camps.

Economically, however, there is no evidence that Germany has been acting like the Nazi regime, which asset-stripped the countries it occupied, causing massive shortages of raw materials, leading to malnutrition and famine – not to mention the deliberate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Poles and many others in eastern Europe. In fact, Germany has been spending huge amounts of money on shoring up failing economies such as that of Greece.

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The picture painted by some Brexiteers of the European Union as a cloak for German domination calls up another picture – of Britain standing alone against Europe in the 1930s in the defence of freedom, democracy and human rights. Boris Johnson, indeed, has called for the British to become the “heroes of Europe” again, as in 1940, to “liberate” the UK from the domination of the EU. And Nigel Farage has claimed that if Britain remains in the single market and the customs union it will be a client state of the EU, just as Vichy France was of Nazi Germany. Whether or not they were intended as such, recent films set during the Second World War – Churchill, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour – along with books such as Boris Johnson’s woefully inaccurate The Churchill Factor and Andrew Roberts’s rather better Churchill: Walking with Destiny, underscore the myth of Britain’s “finest hour” that they believe will be echoed by Brexit – history, as Karl Marx said, repeating itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

History as myth was equally in evidence in 2014, in the efforts of some Conservative politicians to turn the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War into a national celebration of Britons, as Michael Gove put it, fighting in a “just and noble cause… defending the Western liberal order” against the authoritarian state of the Kaiser. Gove and those who shared this view seemingly forgot that for most of the war Britain’s principal ally alongside the French was Tsarist Russia – hardly a model of democracy or Western values – while Britain was no democracy either, since the right to vote in national elections was denied to some 40 per cent of adult men and a full 100 per cent of adult women.

And of course, in neither war did Britain stand alone: both in 1914-18 and again in 1939-45 the United Kingdom had the backing of a global empire, stretching from the Caribbean to the Antipodes, from Canada to India, providing troops and resources on a massive scale. For those Brexiteers who have remembered this fact, the history of the British empire has been a source of encouragement, as they pursue the notion of “global Britain”. In this fantasy, Britain retains its existing trade with Africa, Asia and the Americas and somehow expands this to hitherto unknown dimensions while simultaneously dispensing with the formidable negotiating power that comes from being part of the world’s largest and richest trading bloc.

If Liam Fox believes, as he tweeted in 2016, that “the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th-century history”, then he has clearly forgotten (as too many Britons evidently have) the welter of blood and violence in which the British empire dissolved after 1945, particularly in Malaya, Kenya and Palestine, not to mention the three million inhabitants of British-ruled India who died in a preventable famine during the war.

Imperial nostalgia is fully in evidence in David Cannadine’s contribution on the 19th century to the Penguin History of Britain series, entitled Victorious Century. “For much of the time,” he writes, “it was an era of national greatness, global reach and imperial aggrandisement, which in our devolved, downsized, post-imperial, post-Brexit Britain, is experientially unknowable and imaginatively all but irrecoverable.” In those days, he continues, Britain led the world politically and economically, in an age that was very “unlike our own diminished times and limited horizons”.

The book underlines the central myth of Brexit: that Britain has always been wholly unlike other European countries. The Victorians, Cannadine says, were right to think that their country was “unique, exceptional and providentially blessed”. The downside of British society in the era – poverty, squalor, inequality, the lack of legal and political rights for the majority, disease and deprivation – get very little attention in the book.

Yet Brexiteer nostalgia goes back much further than the Georgian and Victorian eras. Jacob Rees-Mogg, for instance, proclaimed proudly to a fringe audience at last year’s Conservative party conference that Brexit would be “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 Crécy. We win all of these things… [Audience member: ‘Trafalgar!’] And Trafalgar, obviously.”

It would take too long to unpack all the historical errors in this catalogue in detail, but one might at least point out that Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the 1832 Reform Act all excluded the vast majority of the British population; Agincourt and Crécy were fought not to liberate England from foreign rule but actually in pursuit of an English claim to the throne of France. And, of course, rather inconveniently, Waterloo was won by the Prussians, not by the British. Wellington was a great defensive general and kept the French at bay, but the battle was only won when his allies Blücher and the Prussians arrived; and in any case Wellington’s allied army only included a minority of British troops. Trafalgar was fought to maintain the British empire, not to liberate Britain from French or European domination. As for “the burgesses coming at parliament”, who knows what that means?

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Rees-Mogg’s bizarre catalogue is part of a larger Brexiteer narrative of British history that sees it as entirely separate from, or antagonistic to, the history of the rest of Europe. Sometimes this is framed in terms that are staggeringly ignorant. Take, for instance, Boris Johnson’s denunciation of Theresa May’s Chequers plan for a (relatively) soft Brexit: “If Chequers were adopted it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule.”

Where to begin with this extraordinary claim? Well, to start with, King Harold Godwinson was not “deliberately acquiescing” in William the Conqueror’s assumption of the English throne; he was not only defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings but actually lost his life in the process. Then it wasn’t exactly “foreign” rule, either: Harold was half-Danish and, like Edward the Confessor before him, moved easily within the dense family network of the Anglo-Danish king Cnut the Great and his descendants, spending a good deal of time himself in Normandy. His dispute with William was basically a quarrel within the post-Viking world of north-western Europe in the 11th century.

And then, of course, 1066 was far from being the last occasion on which England was invaded from abroad: 1216 was the next one, when Prince Louis of France, the future King Louis VIII, invaded southern England and held court in London (he later withdrew after the Pope excommunicated him for his presumption).

Then in 1485 Henry Tudor landed in south Wales with a force of French and Scottish soldiers, gathered a substantial number of Welsh troops, and invaded England from there, killing and defeating King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field (again, not much evidence of England’s leaders “deliberately acquiescing” in the usurpation, though they came to terms with it quickly enough after the invasion had been staged).

Acquiescence there was in 1688, when William of Orange landed at Brixham with a Dutch army in tow. So unpopular was the reigning monarch, the Catholic James II, that William ascended the throne as William III having won a virtually bloodless victory – bloodless, that is, in England. The Dutch invasion led to intensive fighting and loss of life in Scotland and Ireland; not much acquiescence there either, then. Just as 1688 was celebrated in England as the “Glorious Revolution”, so the Brexiteer narrative is, in similar fashion, an emphatically English story – though, as the recalcitrant obstacle posed to Brexit by the Irish border demonstrates, the costs of forgetting about the rest of the country can be considerable.

What Boris Johnson’s claim is in fact subscribing to is the old concept of the “Norman yoke” in which an idealised Anglo-Saxon realm of free-born Englishmen is subjugated in 1066 by the ruthlessly hierarchical political and social system imposed on it by Norman foreigners: an idea that exercised a strong appeal to radicals and reformers in the Victorian era but which has long since been exposed by historians as a myth. Feudal land tenures and obligations existed well before the Norman Conquest, and Anglo-Saxon England was far removed from the paradise of freedom and equality described by proponents of the “Norman yoke” idea.

At least, as Boris Johnson said on the morning after the 2016 referendum, while Britain may be leaving the EU, it’s not leaving Europe. According to some, however, it’s never really been there in the first place. Simon Jenkins, the Guardian’s tame Brexiteer, has said, for example, that England’s history is quite separate from Europe’s.

Try telling that to the medieval monarchs who presided over the Angevin empire or fought the Hundred Years’ War; or the Dutchman William III or the German kings of the Hanoverian dynasty, or Queen Mary I, who said that when she was dead the word “Calais”, England’s last Continental possession, would be found lying in her heart. Not much more than a century and a half after Mary’s death, England regained a possession on the Continent in the shape of the electorate, later kingdom, of Hanover, with the same monarch ruling both countries from 1714 to 1837.

The influence of French culture, German Protestant religion, Italian art and food, and European music, painting and literature on England over the centuries has been huge. The EU is by far the largest of Britain’s trading partners and economic links with the Continent have a very long history indeed, stretching from the cloth trade of the Middle Ages on through the Industrial Revolution, when British engineers, entrepreneurs, railway navvies and thousands of others spread economic innovation across Europe as far as Russia (the currently disputed industrial region of Donetsk, for example, was actually founded by a Welshman, the ironmaster John Hughes, and began life in the 19th century under the name “Yuzovka”). Ties with America, which are trumpeted by some Brexiteers, are feeble in comparison, and hardly to be relied on under the presidency of Donald Trump.

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According to some, England’s history of constitutionalism and traditions of the common law mark it off sharply from the political and institutional heritage of the Continent (their focus is on England, not Britain, because Scotland’s legal system is based, Continental-style, on Roman law, not common law). This is what used to be known as the “Whig theory of history”, according to which the struggle for liberty and the rule of law have been the central thread in English history since the Middle Ages – a theory that it is surprising to find some Conservatives defending, since it was conservative historians such as Herbert Butterfield and Lewis Namier whose devastating criticisms effectively demolished it many decades ago. They demonstrated that the supposed struggle for liberty was often a struggle for something quite different, whether it was Puritan rule and the suppression of Catholicism in the 17th century, or infighting between aristocratic parliamentary and patronage networks in the 18th.

The fight for liberty and democracy has also been a central theme in the history of the Continent for centuries, from the French Revolution of 1789 through the rise of liberalism and the 1848 revolutions. Countries such as France and Germany achieved universal male suffrage long before Britain did. Of course, freedom and democracy were more or less extinguished from the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, and the grim blanket of Stalinist rule descended over half the Continent in 1945, suppressing these older traditions and squashing the attempt to resurrect them in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

That’s not the least of the reasons why another recent ill-informed outburst by a Conservative politician caused widespread outrage in the European Parliament. The MEP Syed Kamall responded to a call from Udo Bullmann, the German leader of the socialist group in the chamber, for right-wing extremism to be fought wherever it emerged in Europe, by telling him: “When you talk about right-wing extremists, we have to remember that the Nazis were national socialists. It’s a strain of socialism. It’s a left-wing ideology. They want the same thing as you, let’s be quite clear.” Not surprisingly, Bullmann found these remarks “an insult to all those social democrats who fought against Nazism”. Kamall later issued a half-hearted apology, but the damage had been done.

The Social Democrats were the only party that voted against the Enabling Act of 1933 that created the Nazi dictatorship, and many thousands of them were thrown into concentration camps as a result. Not a few were murdered by the Nazis, whose racism, aggressive nationalism, militarism, and suppression of human rights marked them out as a party of the extreme right, not the moderate left. When they came to power, they did not carry out any policies commonly regarded as socialist, such as the socialisation of private enterprise.

For Bullmann, Kamall’s remarks illustrated the profound historical ignorance of modern-day British Conservatives: “They don’t now know what the Nazis were or the history of the last century,” he said. “That is why they do not realise that Europe is the answer to that, to that idiotic barbarism, and fascist ideology.”

This is hardly the way for British Conservatives to win friends and influence people in Europe at a time when they desperately need support for their Brexit plans (whatever they might turn out to be). Yet May’s priority isn’t really Brexit, hard or soft: it is, rather, preventing the Conservative Party from breaking up over the issue.

Another misleading historical parallel neatly illustrates this point. Rees-Mogg recently invoked the example of the early Victorian prime minister Robert Peel in warning May not to rely on the votes of the opposition to get her Brexit legislation through. Peel, he pointed out, had won a vote on the repeal of the Corn Laws, which kept domestic grain prices high to protect the landed interest, in the face of a rebellion by many of his own backbenchers, because he had secured the support of opposition MPs. “It is very, very dangerous territory,” said Rees-Mogg, “for prime ministers to rely on opposition votes. They find they are fair-weather friends, they’re not there every day of the week.” Indeed, having split his own party irrevocably, Peel duly lost a vote on the next major issue of the day and had to resign.

All of this was true, and yet it missed the point: what Peel did was to put the national interest first, and partisanship second. He split his party in order to deal with the massive famine, caused by the failure of the potato crop and by a series of catastrophically bad grain harvests, that had broken out in Scotland and Ireland, causing in the end well over a million deaths from starvation and disease. Today’s leadership seems incapable of learning this very simple lesson and, desperate to appease the right wing of its supporters in the Commons, is putting party before principle to the detriment of us all. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once remarked: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind.”

Richard J Evans’s most recent book is “The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914” (Penguin)

This article appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history