As Brexit Britain attempts to recalibrate its relationship with Europe, there has been a whirlwind of mythmaking concerning the history of Britain and Europe, and ‘British’ ideas of liberty.
These myths have impeded meaningful debate (not to mention meaningful votes) about Britain’s current relationship with Europe. In this context, scholars interested in history and politics have a critical role to play in helping us think differently about Britain, Europe, and liberty in uncertain times.
‘The dead past is your neighbour’
More than a century ago, British scholars and commentators stationed in southeastern Europe were impressed by the weight of history in the politics of the region. Writing from Macedonia in 1905, the radical internationalist Henry Brailsford noted how “the centuries jostle in the contemporary crowd and the dead past is your neighbour”.
The Balkans were the land of the walking dead. British political life was far removed from the region, occupying a far more advanced place in the ladder of progress, and offering a template for others to emulate. Or so it appeared.
A century later, eastern Europe, so scapegoated during the Brexit referendum campaign, seems to be taking its revenge. In Brexit Britain, too, the dead past is your neighbour. As the past and the present converge, ghosts are shaping the country’s future – be it the Irish Question, obscure rules of parliamentary process, or the conflict between parliament and the crown.
So many moments in British politics have been called ‘historic’ recently that historians should start protesting about the abuse of the term. Indeed, historians have been at the forefront of debunking myths about Britain’s place in the world and showing, as Robert Saunders has noted, how history “serves as a proxy for ideology” in much of current political debate.
Renewed interest in the history of Britain and Europe
At present, there is a resurgent interest in academia in the history of British-EU relations, and the trajectory of British-European relations in the longue durée. This includes re-examining the diplomatic and political history of British-EU relations, and undertaking wider surveys of Britain’s place in the European system.
This resurgent interest poses an important question to academics interested in the circulation of people and ideas across time and space. How can we conceptualise the intellectual exchanges between Europe and Britain in the age of the politics of control?
Britain as a home of European liberty
This question framed the logic of a workshop I recently organized in Durham University on the question of Britain as a home of European liberty.
During the EU referendum campaign, a view of liberty as freedom from the shackles of a dynastic and bureaucratic European Union became one of the main talking points of the Brexiteer camp. Xenophobic and racist arguments against migration from eastern Europe drove the debate.
This negative understanding of liberty as ‘freedom’ from the confines of an undemocratic superstrate and from the obligations with regard to the movement of people was supplemented by a more positive (and delusionary) vision. Having regained its freedom by leaving the EU, Britain would be at liberty to recover its true place in the world by regaining control of its borders and pursuing free trade agreements. These assessments of freedom link with core features of English nationalism, the progressive varieties of which Brailsford did so much to recover in his history of the Levelers.
The workshop aimed to cut across these ideological conceptions of freedom and scrutinize historically some of the assumptions underpinning current references to liberty.
There is a triangular relationship between Britain, Europe and liberty. By that, I mean that Britain has traditionally acted as a refuge from despotism and tyranny in the continent. This has been a defining feature of Britishness and has shaped imaginary understandings of Britain’s place in Europe and the world.
At the workshop, some academics analysed the conditions that rendered Britain hospitable to radicals and refugees fleeing persecution from the continent. Their papers drew a distinction between these historical conditions, and the self-congratulatory assessments made by the British about their ‘special relationship’ with liberty. Such self-deception is reinforced by the ideal of the ancient constitution, its parliamentary tradition, enlightened imperial rule and so on.
Sooner or later, Britain will not only reconfigure its position towards Europe, but it will re-negotiate the union between the four nations comprising the United Kingdom. But Brexit fatigue is already creeping in. If there is not renewed debate on Britain, Europe, and liberty, ghosts will shape this country’s future instead.