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.

**

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…

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