Brexit and the abuse of history

History is our best and only guide to our future. In the last analysis we rely on evidence (which itself is always open to challenge). Doctrine, dogma, ideology, big ideas – they all escape evidence all too easily.

I thought it time to look at a few examples of the way history is abused by supporters of Brexit. In an attempt to change the way that history is framed. As with scientists and climate change the assumption is that historians are engaged in some kind of conspiracy. The Govean disparaging of expertise opens up the field. Interpretation becomes a free-for-all. Bias is owned lightly, he (and it seems it’s mainly he) who corners the airwaves calls the tune.  

It’s insidious. Even the mild-mannered Giles Fraser, one time Canon of St Paul’s, is caught up in it. Reference his review in the current Prospect of Eamon Duffy’s Reformation Divided. There’s the argument that Rome (papal Rome) and Brussels are somehow synonymous.. Fraser refers to Thomas More ‘fighting a rearguard action against a 16th century Brexit. Substitute the Bishop of Rome for the Treaty of Rome and it appears we have been fighting over Brexit for centuries.’  

There’s a harsher more vituperative tone to David Starkey, an example of an historian who has sacrificed academic credentials for a new career of opinion and disputation. Starkey unashamedly links the the 16th and 21st centuries. Brexit is our second Reformation, escaping a continental behemoth. Suffice it to say that sovereignty means something radically different today from the 16th century. A restrictive theocratic establishment bears no comparison whatever to a institution dedicated to opening not closing borders.  

The German sociologist, Max Weber, whose book on the Protestant work ethic was published in 1905, is also brought into the argument. Turned by some today into an attack on southern and Catholic Europe, seen as having a malign influence on the EU – so we are best out of it. David Starkey for one is no friend of Catholics. And yet – France of course is as close to a secular nation as you can get, and southern Germany is largely Catholic… Italy and Spain have a remarkable industrial record. The old Catholic Church was a heavy restraint – but most of western Europe long ago put aside such restraints.  

Then there’s Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s right-hand man, claiming Joseph Chamberlain, social reformer and advocate of economic power based on ‘Greater Britain’, as an inspiration. Chamberlain as a social radical turned Tory was an altogether bigger beast than Theresa May, operating in a radically different political context, and in an age of empire. Timothy’s comparisons are convenient, and spurious. 

In a similar vein we have the Anglosphere beloved of Daniel Hannan and Michael Gove, and a good few others – the notion that there is some wide English-speaking identity, tradition and loyalty which can form the basis of future trading patterns, and which has to date been restricted by our trading relations with our near European neighbours. The Empire lives on, and other countries will come somehow to doff their caps to their one-time British overlords. Old loyalties will trump self-interest, overlooking the fact that trade is a brutal game.  

For my part, I’m intrigued by these arguments. History is a broad church and thrives on interpretation and counter interpretation. It’s always pushing back boundaries, bringing to bear new research, widening our understanding. And yet – it is a poor guide to our futures. Linking the Reformation, Henry VIII, the Protestant work ethic and European economic dominance is a highly questionable activity.  

What we can be quite certain of is that the consequences of Brexit will not be what any of us expect – whether we’re yea or nay sayers.

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There’s also this quote (source Wikipedia) from a 2003 New York Times article in which the historian Niall Ferguson pointed out that data from the OECD seems to confirm that ‘the experience of Western Europe in the past quarter-century offers an unexpected confirmation of the Protestant ethic. To put it bluntly, we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe. This represents the stunning triumph of secularisation in Western Europe—the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic.’

A highly questionable thesis in the first place. And Western Europe too easily becomes synonymous with the EU, Brexit a brave new world which will see the revival of both the work ethic and our economic prosperity.

And maybe the old British Empire as well…

Walking in the Lake District with Mrs May

Father, son and daughter in the Lake District. No talk of politics, just much sharing of music, all our of favourites, from fifty years back in my case, back to Grace Slick belting out White Rabbit – where did such amazing music come from when all had been doldrums only ten years before. Not quite so far back for Ben and Rozi, but they have good taste, and are slowly convincing me that I should love You can be heroes...wrong… We can be heroes… wrong again, just Heroes, and maybe come round to David Bowie after all these years. Now that he’s gone.

We try and avoid politics, though father and daughter are political animals. Whoops of delight when I see that all the election posters in Coniston are for the LibDem candidate. What, I wonder, does Theresa May talk about with her husband, and passing strangers, when out walking? And what if I met her out walking? A cheery good morning?

Bagehot in the Economist has a piece on Theresa May, under the heading Tory of Tories. Her Britain he writes is ‘the Britain of the Tory heartlands, a Britain of solid values and rooted certainties, hard work and upward mobility, a Britain where people try to get ahead but also have time for the less fortunate’. That made me wonder. What’s to disagree? Well, let’s get started…

Rooted certainties – that of course has never been England, or the UK. It’s our ability to change, to move quickly, to adapt, to draw on skills from around the world (here in the Lake District the Coniston mines and Millom tannery are two local examples) that has made us what we are. Not clinging to rooted certainties. ‘Solid values’ – a euphemism too often for closing ranks against the world. ‘Hard work’ – it’s inspiration, and we’ve drawn over centuries much inspiration, and wisdom, from Europe, we need as well. ‘Upward mobility’ – and what of those left behind? Not the JAMs, the just about managing, an invented concept if ever there was one, but those whose disadvantages of birth and position deny any opportunity of upward progress. The Tory world is too often a world where the barriers comes down, and the shutters.

There’s another free-trading Tory as well, a different breed, and they have a curious co-existence with the heartland Tory. Not Mrs May’s world at all, nor it seems that of her ‘guru’, Nick Timothy,  who likes to quote Joseph Chamberlain as a hero, claiming him as a people’s champion against … free trade. Falling into the old trap of quoting history out of context, one that seems to be everywhere in these post Brexit days.

All a frightful muddle.

And if we’d met her out walking? A cheery hello, as I manage with most walkers, that would have to suffice. Puzzling over the contradictions of Mrs May would be for another time, and the certainties.

Walking is about the next horizon, and the one after that, and horizons open up as you travel to take in the whole world…

 

 

 

Gloucester, Easter Sunday morning

Easter Sunday, and a forecast of dullness belied by brilliant sun, and a blue sky which set off the white stone of Gloucester Cathedral. 8pm, early morning communion in the choir, before the high altar. Above us the great 14th century window reputedly commemorating the battle of Crecy. About thirty people at communion, come 11pm the cathedral will be packed, chairs await them in every corner of nave and aisle. After communion I waited awhile, and stood at the back of the nave, looking toward organ and altar, and all was (for a few minutes) empty, not a soul, just the great Norman columns in stately procession toward the transept, and the simple vaulted ceiling, in sharp contrast to the wonderful fan vaulting of the choir.

(Should anyone wonder why a blog with zen in its title should be comfortable with early communion… There’s a silence, a time for contemplation, in the early morning. I’ll say no more than that.)

In the cathedral precinct there’s major landscaping, and fences everywhere, but lift your eyes to the cathedral walls, the tower and the sky, and there is all the space, and all the serenity you could wish for in the world.

Ivor Gurney has a close association with the cathedral.  The son of a Gloucester tailor, he was composer, writer of songs, poet, and a celebrant of the Gloucestershire landscape, in his poems from the front, and in his letters. Windows in the Lady Chapel commemorate him, and I always pay a visit when I come to the cathedral – but not today. The Lady Chapel is fenced off, major renovations until the autumn. They will make for easier access, and maybe more people will find sanctuary there, and take in the wonderful stained glass (by Tom Denny) of the Gurney memorial. He survived the first war, but his mind didn’t, incarcerated in a mental home in Kent he longed for his home county, and the Severn vale, where he’d walked countless times…

One place he walked was Cranham, whose woods he celebrated, and where I am now. Reached via the Portway, down and up which I drove an hour or two ago. Gurney would have walked, and he’d have seen that amphitheatre of woodland and meadow opening up ahead, farms either side, and a vast sky above. He was obsessed with the idea of beauty, above all the beauty of his home county. It gave him comfort in France. He recalls in a letter home how the tower of the church of Merville reminds him of Gloucester’s tower. Both churches rise above the landscape, are landmarks, and inspirations.

Walking back to my car, I passed along pedestrianised streets, stained, a little ragged, forlorn, and empty on an Easter Sunday morning. Only Macdonalds and Burger King open, and they only just. How would Gurney have responded to the decay of his old city? To the contrast between shops, and cathedral and precinct, an absolute contrast. How I wondered as I walked back could the city be revived, made vibrant and colourful as a city centre should be – and keep all the while the quiet and sanctity and celebration of the cathedral and its surrounds.

One of many questions this Easter, an Easter where questions seem to crowd in on all sides – so many questions where there are no obvious answers.