Britons’ rival views shape Brexit debate
London — British history has become a Brexit battleground.
British voters’ decision three years ago to split from the European Union was fueled by a sense that the U.K. is fundamentally separate from its continental neighbors — a sceptered isle, rather than a European power.
Brexit-backing Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg has compared Brexit to historic British military victories on the continent, saying “it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy.” Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage fires up crowds with air-raid sirens and the theme from World War II thriller “The Great Escape.”
Such patriotic messages strike a strong chord in an era of surging nationalism. But anti-Brexit politicians and historians say that view is too simplistic — and could end up weakening the U.K.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown argued Sunday in the Observer newspaper that “a destructive, populist, nationalist ideology” was leaving the United Kingdom “sleepwalking into oblivion.”
Brown, who was Labour Party leader and British prime minister between 2007 and 2010, accused current Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson of “conjuring up the absurd and mendacious image of the patriotic British valiantly defying an intransigent Europe determined to turn us into a vassal state.”
Richard J. Evans, professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, lamented an increasing tendency to “talk about Europe as if it’s somewhere separate, as if Britain is not part of Europe.”
“I went to Gatwick Airport recently and there’s a huge advertisement there for an airline that says ‘Europe is closer than you think,’” he said. “And I thought, well, it’s closer than you think — we’re in it.”
Evans said the view of Britain as an exception to the European rule ignores “the multiple connections between England and the continent over the centuries.”
“If you look at our sovereigns, they have been variously French and Dutch and German,” he said, noting also how culturally intertwined Britain is with continental Europe.
Like Evans, University of Toronto history professor Margaret MacMillan argues that Brexit is being “driven by a very false picture of the past” and by nostalgia for the days when Britain’s empire covered a quarter of the globe.
MacMillan said many people in Britain — and especially in England, which accounts for five-sixths of the U.K. population and saw the strongest vote to leave the EU in 2016 — “are having an existential crisis about who they are.”
“I think they lost their empire and lost being a major world power and they seem to have accepted that, but I think there has been a lingering sense that ‘We were once great and now we’re not,’” she said.
Brexit-supporting historians reject that notion, viewing the EU as an undemocratic obstacle to British sovereignty.
Cambridge University historian Robert Tombs says the fact that Britain did not experience 20th-century occupation or dictatorship sets it apart from many of its neighbors. But he thinks Britain’s historical differences from the rest of Europe are often overstated, and Brexit was driven by more immediate concerns.
“We certainly had less commitment to the whole idea of European integration than countries like France or Germany,” he said. “But I think attitudes to Europe are not really all that different in many EU states. And I think that has a lot to do with more recent events such as the eurozone crisis, the democratic deficit in the EU and the fact that the EU has got so much more important in people’s lives and yet they have very little control over what it does.”
Tombs argues that at a time of international instability, Britain is better off outside the fractious bloc.
“I think a relatively cohesive and relatively democratically governed unit is much more likely to be able to ride out whatever storms may be coming than a really rather ramshackle and unpopular and very weak confederation,” he said.
Historian Andrew Roberts, a biographer of Winston Churchill, said recently “the idea that your sovereignty effectively belongs to somebody else outside your country is just unacceptable for anybody who has any sense of British independence.”
But others contend, like Brown, that Britain’s democratic institutions are under threat from Brexit.