The result of the EU Referendum in 2017 cannot be foretold, but one thing is certain: both sides in the debate will lay a claim on the past. The campaign group ‘Historians for Britain’, seeking a ‘No/Leave’ result, have a message from David Starkey on their website’s front page:
England’s semi-detached relationship with Continental Europe is neither new nor an aberration…
Never mind that England and the U.K. are separate things: the message smacks of re-heated nineteenth-century Whiggism, a time when all historians needed to do was explain (a) how Britain became so great and (b) why almost a quarter of the globe was coloured colonial pink. The ‘In/Remain’ campaign have so far indicated that they will present the choice as a hard-nosed question of politics and economics, since romantic pro-E.U. mood-music is unlikely to fare very well in the heat of the campaign. They will not offer ‘Hegel re-heated’ as the alternative to ‘Carlyle re-cooked’. They are wise to do so.
*Update* 10 May 2016. David Cameron has just poured gasoline all over it by threatening World War 3 if we vote for Brexit. I’ll let Simon Jenkins explain.
‘History’ cannot tell you or I how to vote in a few years’ time. But, that doesn’t mean that we cannot draw some lessons from the past. Indeed, it has perhaps never been more essential that we make such attempts.
The following sentence aside, I intend to avoid all talk of world wars, world cups, and winters of discontent. The story of our entanglement with continental Europe – and its peoples – is so much bigger and more fascinating than this.
The islands which now constitute the UK and Ireland have never been hermetically sealed from the continent of Europe. Indeed, there was a time when they weren’t even islands. Ronald Hutton paints a vidid picture of what the Gower Coast may have been like thirty-four millennia ago:
The land below was a frozen tundra, which bloomed during the warmer climate of the following few millennia…grazing it were stiff-maned wild horses, long-nosed saiga antelopes, red deer, reindeer…mountain hares leaped among the grass, and through it wandered predators that still survive in Europe such as lynxes, red and arctic foxes, wolves and brown bears, with other, greater, beasts that have long vanished.
The cliffs on the Gower are home to a stunning array of ancient burials sites, including the oldest and most famous of them all: the so-called Red Lady of Paviland at Goat’s Hole Cave.
But why? One suggestion is that, back when the English Channel and the Irish Sea were but big rivers, the glowing coastline of the Gower would have acted as a ‘beacon’ to human approaching from the southern plain. Another theory is that these big rivers encouraged humans moving from Europe to approach what is now Britain from the Atlantic coast of France: their first sight of upland Britain would therefore have been the Gower coast. Whatever the reason, the coastline became a site of significant ritual importance to the earliest Britons – a result of its extraordinary geography and the route by which significant numbers of human beings arrived in these isles after a continental journey of hundreds – if not thousands – of miles.
When the Romans came to Britain just a few dozen millennia later (!), their impact was similarly shaped by the rituals, religions and culture of the mediterranean world combining with the harsher geography and climate of north-western Europe. Many of their temples were constructed on sites of earlier religious activity, and combined the styles of classical Rome – columnal borders, for instance – with a form more suited to the wet and wind Britain’s so famous for, such as an inner stone precinct bounded by an outer construction of the same shape. Roman festivities – dancing, singing, drinking – took place at sites carved out by hundreds of thousands of years of British weather – holy wells, mountaintops – and within a structure made to adapt classical styles of worship to the cold and rainy Atlantic coastal region. It was a process of interaction and adaptation to be continued with the conversion to Christianity after the fifth century A.D.
Fast-forward another thousand years or so to the sixteenth-century English Reformation, often portrayed as the high-point of English separation from the prevailing winds of continental Europe. To whom did Archbishop Thomas Cranmer turn when developing his ideas about the sacrament of the Eucharist, but the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer. The death of Henry VIII had brought a real opportunity to enact the protestant reformation in full, and Cranmer needed the ideas, support, and good-will of his European colleagues. When the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli travelled to England in 1547, he brought with him a long-lost manuscript written by the fourth-century Church Father John Chrysostom, which buttressed Cranmer’s ideas about the non-literal presence of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper and which was enthusiastically harvested for his own 1550 Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament. To where did the English protestants flee after the accession of the Catholic Mary I but the bastion of reformed religion, John Calvin’s Geneva? When they returned to England a few years later, they came back not empty-handed, but with suitcases full-to-bursting with new ideas about the Church, Church government, and theology.
By now, you are probably starting to get the message that I’ve been driving at: the British Isles and their peoples have always, and will always, exist alongside the peoples of continental Europe. To regurgitate a stock phrase: we cannot somehow sever our islands and float them out into the mid-Atlantic. Our culture, customs, ideas, rituals, stories, and histories will always be closely entwined with those of our neighbours across the English Channel, in one direction, and the Irish Sea, in the other. The result of the EU Referendum in 2017 cannot change this – no matter what that result is.
‘History’ and ‘historians’ cannot tell us how to vote in the referendum, which is a matter of politics and economics, as well as constitutional and personal taste. Our ‘destiny’ is neither within the E.U., nor outside of it. As the campaigns gear up, we can expect people with business, social, or intellectual ‘authority’ to use the status of their position to try to influence the undecided: “listen to us, because we know what we’re talking about”. Expect stories to be fashioned which have, as their concluding chapter, the outcome of this referendum. The campaign group ‘Historians for Britain’ is one such attempt from within our own discipline; I have little doubt that a rival campaign group, if it does not already exist, soon will. Any such attempts will fall flat. ‘History’ has not been driving us towards closer integration with a super-entity known as the E.U., nor as it established us as a people unique and independent, with a strong ‘go-it-alone’ streak. We are where we are, but nothing is written.
No, what ‘History’ teaches us is that there are bigger forces at work: sheer proximity to the continent and closeness to the peoples of it will ensure that, whatever happens, we cannot escape the centripetal forces drawing us ever closer to Europe (the place) and Europeans (the people inhabiting that place). Voting to leave the E.U. will not change that, while voting to remain is not the natural end-point of the process. Freed from the burden of History, the duty to walk along a pre-ordained path, we are free to make our own choice.