The debate: 2015

26th February 2015.  Ben Riley-Smith. ‘Millions of children being taught distorted view of European history to push further EU integration.’ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11432847/Millions-of-children-being-taught-distorted-view-of-European-history-to-push-further-EU-integration.html 

Ben Riley-Smith outlines the views of David Abulafia, Cambridge professor and Chairman for HfB, on the history curriculum.  Abulafia told the Telegraph that he believed the EU to be involved in a ‘soft push’ to create a shared European culture through glossing over differences between EU members states rather than acknowledging that European history is one of ‘division’. 

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2nd March 2015. ‘There is no dastardly EU plot to hijack the history curriculum.’ https://theconversation.com/there-is-no-dastardly-eu-plot-to-hijack-the-history-curriculum-38139

Appearing before the main debate took off, this article is a response to a claim made by Abulafia that the EU were attempting to obscure the surfacing of national differences in the history curriculum to promote the construction of a ‘pan-European state’.  The author here challenges Abulafia, arguing that British history is still alarmingly central to the curriculum, and that whilst history should never be harnessed for political ends, the curriculum should aim to teach history from multiple national perspectives to promote peace between states.   

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11th May 2015. David Abulafia – ‘Britain; apart from or a part of Europe?’ http://www.historytoday.com/david-abulafia/britain-apart-or-part-europe

In this controversial article, Abulafia makes his case for the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU.  The aim of HfB, he writes, is ‘to show how the UK has developed in a distinctive way’ – experiencing continuity in ‘ancient institutions’ such as the monarchy, the universities, political and legal systems such as Common Law.  He claims that Britain never experienced nationalism, fascism, communism or anti-Semitism to the same extent that Europe did, and concludes that Britain is best perceived as a partner rather than a participant in Europe. 

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12th May 2015. Fiona Whelan. ‘Beyond the Doctorate’. http://beyondthedoctorate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/academic-affiliation.html

Here, Whelan warns scholars against the misuse of academic affiliation, citing David Starkey’s apparent affiliation with the University of Cambridge on the HfB website as misleading.

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14th May 2015.  Neil Gregor. ‘Historians, Britain and Europe.’ http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/neil-gregor/britain-europe_b_7272906.html

In reply to Abulafia, Gregor challenges HfB’s claims to ‘traditions of moderation, exceptionalism and benign continuity’, denouncing their manifesto as 'Whiggish' (adhering to the view that the course of history follows an inevitable path of 'progression' and 'betterment') and out of date.  He points up British imperial history as an example which undercuts claims to political ‘peacefulness’, exceptionality or isolation, and concludes by calling upon his contemporaries to oppose the HfB campaign.

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14th May 2015.  Charles West. ‘England: Apart from or apart of Europe? An early medieval perspective.’ http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/england-part-europe-early-medieval-perspective/

A response to Abulafia’s article, focussing on Britain’s pre-Conquest history to claim that it was, at least in the early medieval period, ‘unambiguously involved with the continent.’  Not only was Britain tied to Europe through immigration and religion, West argues, but Alfred the Great, perhaps medieval England’s most famous king, had many European relatives and filled his court with men from Ireland and the Frankish kingdom.  West’s claim is that to continue rather than break relations with Europe would be historically consistent.  

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14th May 2015.  ‘Neville Morley.  ‘Europa Endless.’ https://thesphinxblog.com/2015/05/14/europa-endlos/

Morley’s stance is that the past is too complex to be used as an unproblematic source of guidance for the future.  The issue he has with the claims made by HfB is not that their details are questionable – all history, Morley argues, is questionable.  Instead, he berates HfB for claiming to attack ‘myths’, such as the existence of a ‘European demos’ or shared identity, which are not there to be argued against.  Morley’s claim is that by seeking to undermine these supposed ‘myths’, HfB are able to sneak their own politically motivated myths in through the back door. 

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15th May 2015. Fiona Whelan and Kieran Hazzard. ‘Historians for Britain: The Betrayal of History and Historical Practice.’ http://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/historians-for-britain-the-betrayal-of-history-and-historical-practice/

Whelan and Hazzard argue that HfB harnessed their historical claims to promote a political agenda, which they ‘dictate’, rather than ‘facilitate’.  They point up Edward I’s edict against the Jews to challenge Abulafia’s statement that anti-semitism had limited impact in Britain and claim that he omits important historical events in a bid to create a sense of Britain’s ‘continuous’ history.  They also challenge Abulafia’s reductive use of the word ‘Britain’, and urge historians to employ ‘honesty and transparency’ when dealing with the past.

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15th May 2015.  Rebekah Higgit with Richard Dunn. ‘Beware Eurosceptic versions of history and science’ https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/may/15/historians-for-britain-beware-eurosceptic-versions-of-history-and-science 

This article claims that Abalufia’s argument exemplifies Whiggish narrative (a narrative which stresses history as a process of 'betterment.')  His claim to British uniqueness, it is suggested, appeals to patriotic sentiment and is still a feature of much education and literature in Britain.  Higgit draws on the eighteenth century search for longitude to reveal that Britain is often mistakenly presented as the prime contributor to intellectual achievement, which ignores the input of other nations.  Historians and readers need to be aware of these biases, and understand that accounts of British exceptionalism ‘are more the result of national tradition and wishful thinking than a careful reading of the sources’.

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15th May 2015. ‘History or Political Propaganda?’ https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/history-or-political-propaganda/

This piece attacks Abulafia and HfB for promoting political ideology in the guise of history and for claiming to be representative of a wide cross-section of British historians.  It glosses key participants in the debate and provides links to the author’s own contribution – a response to what has been claimed to be a ‘nationalistic’ history of British science by Brian Cox.

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15th May 2015.  Edward Madigan and Graham Smith. ‘Historians for History statement’.  https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/historians-for-history-statement-may-2015/ 

This statement takes issue with Abulafia’s article and uses historical examples to challenge its central tenets; the wedding of British history to democratic ideals, the peculiar nature of the monarchy, and the ‘British-ness’ of the oldest universities.  It challenges HfB’s hegemonic treatment of ‘Britain’, calls them out as irresponsible historians and invites other historians to join the debate.

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18th May 2015.  David Andress, Richard Blakemore, Thomas Charlton, Neil Gregor, Rachel Moss, Natalia Nowakowska, Charlotte Riley and Mark Williams. ‘Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated’.  http://www.historytoday.com/various-authors/fog-channel-historians-isolated

In this open letter, the authors argue that Abulafia’s claim for British exceptionalism was a dominant ideology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and has been overhauled in recent decades.  The letter aims to undermine Abulafia’s claims to continuity in areas such as parliamentary sovereignty and the perceived ‘peculiarity’ of Common Law.  It stresses Britain’s connections to Europe (political, social, cultural, economic, religious etc), challenges the tendency to treat ‘Britain’ and ‘Europe’ as blocs and argues that claims to national exceptionalism are not peculiar to Britain. 

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18th May 2015.  Bret Cameron. ‘The EU referendum: Cambridge’s Professor Abulafia has got it wrong.’ http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/8658

For a student’s perspective on Abulafia’s comments, see this article from Cambridge’s student newspaper ‘Varsity’.  Bret Cameron sees Abulafia’s article as ‘eurosceptic’, prejudiced and historically inaccurate.  His main point is, however, that the past should not be approached as a blueprint for the future, rather it should be only one of many considerations which help us make important political decisions.     

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18th May 2015. Justin Champion. ‘Britain and the European Community of Ideas’. https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/britain-and-the-european-community-of-ideas-by-justin-champion/

In this short article, Justin Champion concentrates on ‘ideas’ as an area of history in which the relationship between Britain and Europe has always been central.  ‘Britain may have stood alone at points in its history’, he concludes, ‘but when it did so it was in the name of a set of wider and cosmopolitan European projects and principles.’ 

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18th May 2015.  Pepter Frankopan. http://www.peterfrankopan.com/blog/meltdown-the-historians-hashtag-fiasco

Peter Frankopan argues that historians should be concerned with studying the ‘exchanges, continuities and borrowings across cultures’ rather than approaching history in the Anglo-centric tradition promoted by HfB.  For Frankopan, this way of doing history is responsible for our lack of knowledge about regions like Syria, Central Asia and China.    

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19th May 2015.  Tom Charlton. ‘Historians for Britain and the ‘historical perspective’ on Europe.’ http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/historians-for-britain-and-the-historical-perspective-on-europe

Charlton argues that the ‘perspective’ offered by HfB is ‘unconvincing’, an ahistorical narrative of ‘conflict and difference’.  The role of history in political debates should be welcomed, he claims, but any use of history in this way ‘requires a careful evaluation of how examples are selected, how they are utilised and to what end.’ 

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20th May 2015.  Lucy Inglis. ‘Beyond Guilt and Glory’ http://www.historytoday.com/lucy-inglis/beyond-guilt-and-glory

Inglis argues that the inclusive/exceptionalist debate is misplaced and futile.  Both sides are guilty of harnessing past narratives to support political ideologies and neither are fulfilling the true role of the historian: to move beyond the construction of grand narratives informed by ‘personal opinion’ and look critically at how the past, and the perspectives it yields, can aid the future.

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21st May 2015.  Alex Drace-Francis.  ‘Der britische Historikerstreit’. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/05/21/alex-drace-francis/der-britische-historikerstreit/

Francis claims that HfB use a selective reading of the past to support renegotiation of relations with the EU.  He glosses HfB’s manifesto, its relaunch with a different set of signatures and Abulafia’s controversial article.  He moves on to explain the backlash from academics and argues that national exceptionalism is a Europe-wide phenomenon. The claims of HfB thus, paradoxically, make it a part of rather than distinct from the EU.

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21st May 2015.  Katherine Edwards. ‘Meddling with the Future Again: A History Teacher’s Perspective’.  https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/meddling-with-the-future-again-a-history-teachers-perspective-by-katherine-edwards/

This piece links the HfB campaign to Michael Gove’s campaign for a redrafting of the history curriculum to celebrate British achievements.  She suggests the proposed curriculum was ahistorical, biased, triumphalist and discriminatory towards other countries in the UK and persons of colour, women and the poor.  Her claim is that the populous will reject the HfB campaign as they did Gove’s. 

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22nd May 2015.  'The Guardian view on Britain and Europe: never a place apart.'  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/22/guardian-view-britain-europe-never-place-apart

The Guardian challenges the HfB campaign and Abulafia’s article – claiming it is a response to the ‘culture wars’ which also marked the referendum on Scottish independence.  The ‘exceptionalist’ narrative, the article claims, is not new, and often appears in political diatribes e.g. those of Cameron and Gaitskell.  The piece denounces claims to Britain's historical continuity and suggests that the notion of a ‘milder’ political temperament in Britain is ahistorical.  It lends support to the open letter, ‘Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated’, and claims that Britain ‘can only prosper as part of a greater whole.’

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24th May 2015. ‘Historians in Britain need to ask the right questions about Europe’. https://thehistorywoman.com/2015/05/24/historians-in-britain-need-to-ask-the-right-questions-about-europe/

This piece lends support to ‘Historians for History’ – and their attempts to undermine the ‘reductive’ claims made about British history by HfB. It claims that Historians for History are ‘defending an objective study of history, not the EU’.  The author draws on the study of English republican exiles in post-Restoration England to show that British history is marked by ‘transterritorial connections’ rather than ‘exceptionalism’.

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24th May 2015.  Josh Pughginn. ‘Fog on the Weser: Arminius and Blondie on the future of Europe’. https://resgerendae.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/fog-on-the-weser-arminius-and-blondie-on-the-future-of-europe/

Pughginn sets out the limits of both sides of the debate and argues that rather than trying to establish which side is empirically ‘right’, we should approach history, and the differences in opinion it provokes, ‘in an informed and critical manner’.  Only by considering history from all angles and attempting the ancient Roman practice of ‘self-reflection’ can we truly appreciate the value of the historical arguments we deal with. 

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27th May 2015.  Martial Stubb. ‘Beware the Devil you Conjure up’ http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/beware-devil-conjure/

Stubb revisits the work of Mark Bloch and Ernst Kantorowicz to warn against nationalistic searches for ‘the quest for origins’ as a touchstone of historical enquiry. 

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28th May 2015.  Chris Parr. ‘Historians weigh in on Britain’s relationship with Europe.’ https://www.timeshighereducation.com/content/historians-weigh-britains-relationship-europe

Chris Parr summarises the claims put forward by HfB and the immediate backlash in May 2015. 

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29th May 2015.  Dan Stone. ‘Evidence and Aspiration’ https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/evidence-and-aspiration/

Stone denies British ‘exceptionalism’ with reference to the ‘interconnectedness’ of England with Europe in the medieval and early modern world through trade, exploration, dynastic marriage, technology, the transmission of belief systems, diplomatic conflict and warfare (with references taken from Abulafia’s own work.)  He claims that Abulafia’s ‘political fantasy’ contradicts his previous findings.

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31st May 2015.  Historian on the Edge (Guy Halsall) ‘Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain’ https://edgyhistorian.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/why-history-doesnt-matter-historians.html 

This piece opens by claiming that HfB are a right-wing organisation.  The article claims that many historians opposing HfB are in fact employing Whiggish narratives, whereas HfB are recalling a lost ‘golden age’ of British history, before her integration with Europe.  The claim is that neither narratives matter: the fact that Britain was a) separate or b) entwined with Europe in the past should have no bearing on the Brexit debate. History should be used to show that there are always other possibilities and other stories to be told, and should open our eyes to change and possibility in the present.  

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1st June 2015.  Markus Daeschel. ‘WHO CARES WHAT HISTORIANS SAY?’ http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/who-cares-what-historians-say/

Daeschel argues that we should direct less energy towards the problems with the HfB narrative and more towards debating why historians should have such a privileged role in this momentous decision.  For Daeschel, there is no objective truth and all history is narrative – therefore it can’t be used to dictate the future.  He claims that HfB are exploiting their positions as academics in the public eye to reinforce pre-existing notions about British ‘exceptionalism’ and undermine attempts by other historians to correct their theories. If anything, he argues, we need less ‘history’ in this decision.

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3rd June 2015.  Guy Rowlands. ‘Historians for a Better Europe’ https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/historians-for-a-better-europe/ 

Rowlands opens with defence of HfB.  Not only, he argues, are British legal and commercial traditions different to those favoured by the EU, Britain has a history of accountable government which is threatened by the Union’s lack of a public sphere and its opacity in decision making. We should be looking to decentralize the powers of the EU, with the aid of history.

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 9th June 2015.  Gaby Mahlberg. ‘Ideas have no borders’ https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/ideas-have-no-borders/

Mahlberg argues that HfB have fitted ‘facts’ to the narrative of exceptionalism they’re trying to tell. She doesn’t seek to undermine those facts here, but picks up on one key thing that Britain has shared with Europe – religion – and asks why we would seek to ‘create an artificial island history where manifold continental connections stare us in the face’?

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11th June 2015.  Neil Gregor. ‘Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century’ by Konrad H. Jarausch.'  https://www.timeshighereducation.com/out-ashes-new-history-europe-twentieth-century

In a review of Jarausch’s book, Gregor praises his attempts to debunk myths about Europe and the EU put forward by ‘the Little Englanders, Cold Warriors and imperial nostalgists.’  Jarusch puts forward a new version of European history which ‘cuts forcefully through the… supposedly inevitable decline’ of the EU that is perpetuated by critics of the European Union, and demonstrates that British and European histories are inextricably intertwined. 

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20th June 2015.  Joel Barnes. ‘Historians for Britain: Whig History and Political Inertia.’ https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/historians-for-britain-whig-history-and-political-inertia-by-joel-barnes/

Barnes suggests Abulafia’s statement of ‘harmonious political continuity’ comes from a Whig tradition four centuries old.  This tradition is linked to Common Law and the power of precedent, and is dangerous as it privileges ‘tradition’ over making informed breaks with the past.  This will prevent reform both of the EU and the electoral system.  Britain’s uniqueness comes not from ‘the objective fact of a happy and peaceable political continuity, but… the persistence of the subjective belief in it.’ We need to embrace our links with Europe and prepare to make breaks with the past.

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22nd June 2015.  Emile Chabal and Stephan Malinowski. ‘Can Britain be European?’  http://www.booksandideas.net/Can-Britain-be-European.html

Chabal and Malinowski argue that we need to undercut not only the factual inaccuracies in Abulafia’s work and the ideology of HfB – but also the assumptions underlying their work – a) the myth of continuity and stability b) celebration of British exeptionalism.  They refute the notion of Britain’s ‘mild political disposition’– citing war, imperialism and capitalism to undermine it, and note that many cultural movements in which Britain has engaged are Europe wide. 

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27th June 2015.  Justin Champion. ‘Further Thoughts on the Peculiarities of British History’ https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2015/06/27/further-thoughts-on-the-peculiarities-of-british-history-by-justin-champion/

Champion disputes claims to British distinctiveness, particularly Guy Rowland’s claims that Britain’s government has historically been more accountable/representative. The monarchy particularly complicates the notion of accountability, and a closely regulated public media means Britain cannot be a ‘vanguard of democratic free thought’. 

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1st July 2015. Andrea Mammone. ‘“Historians for Britain” provide a politically motivated, anti-European reading of the past.’ http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/for-britain-and-against-europe/

According to Mammone, HfB, though allegedly non-partisan, are seeking to provide intellectual justification for the Brexit campaign.  He claims they do not represent the opinions of most historians, don’t pay attention to ‘real’ research revealing the positive contributions migrants make to Britain, and suggests that we need historical narratives which are European and global in their scope.  

 

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