The debate post Brexit: 2017

Overview of 2017 articles

The 2017 debate continues to circulate around many of the issues which concerned historians in 2016, such as the role other EU member states will play in the negotiation process, the way in which historical narratives affected the outcome of the referendum and are guiding political visions for the future, and whether or not Brexit is a historical turning point.  There has also been continued discussion about what Brexit will mean for the historically complicated relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and interpretations of the ways English identity shaped Brexit and how Brexit will shape the future of English identity. 


10th Jan 2017. Helen von Bismarck. ‘Lost in translation: Brexit and the Anglo-German relationship.’

Helen von Bismark, historian and author, remarks that post-Brexit, it is useful to look to the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU to shed light on what the future may hold.  From her analyses, she concludes that Germany will have a key role to play in Brexit negotiations, and that May should not repeat Thatcher’s mistake in failing to understand the significance European integration holds for Germany.  


12th Jan 2017. Suzannah Lipscomb ‘ No Island is an Island’

Suzannah Lipscomb, Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, explains that ‘the borders of England and of Britain are not natural, but historic constructions.’  She claims that European influences have been a constant presence in British history.  In response to historians and non-historians who welcomed the Leave vote as a celebration of a unique British culture, she argues ‘[t]here is no… British culture or history distinct from the influence and presence of continental Europeans and other foreigners.’


17th Jan 2017.  Dr Victoria Bateman. ‘Opinion: Four ways to understand Theresa May’s Hard Brexit Speech’

Economic historian Dr Victoria Bateman, University of Cambridge, offers four interpretations of Theresa May’s Hard Brexit Speech.  Bateman suggests that May’s stance is most likely driven by one of the four factors; economic concerns (a desire to pursue a more global economy), wider political concerns (seeking a ‘little England’ with control over migration rather than single market membership), societal concerns (a remedy for social dislocation) or finally a negotiation strategy.


28th January 2017. Matthew Grant. ‘“Leading the world?” The historical fantasy of May’s vision for post-Brexit Britain.’

Matthew Grant, Reader in History at the University of Essex, suggests that Theresa May is pursuing a post-Brexit vision ‘based on an idea of British power that never really existed.’ In doing so, Grant claims, she falls back on a historical narrative which underestimates European involvement in World War Two, overstates the strength of Anglo-American relations, and overestimates the power wielded by Britain in the past.


Feb/March 2017. Interview with Robert Tombs, historian and author.

Robert Tombs, professor of History at the University of Cambridge, suggests it was a mistake to join the European Economic Community in 1973, and claims that the decision to do so was influenced by ‘an exaggerated sense of British weakness.’  The vote to Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, he argues, indicated that the British public no longer adhere to the negative characterisation of Britain as a ‘weak’ country and Europe as ‘a great success story.’ Tombs compares the EU with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late nineteenth century, claiming that ‘its member countries didn’t like what they had got, but the world outside was much worse.  And it became almost ungovernable, but also irreformable.’  Tombs argues that historically England has been a country of emigration, rather than immigration, a trend which is seemingly reversing. 


19th March 2017.  David Olusoga ‘Empire 2.0 is dangerous nostalgia for something that never existed’.

David Olusoga, journalist and historian, writes in response to the use of the phrase ‘Empire 2.0’ in Whitehall to describe plans for Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the Commonwealth. Not only are former colonies and Commonwealth countries disinterested in joining ‘Empire 2.0’, writes Olusoga, but the forces of history and geography combine to make this vision highly unlikely. ‘Empire 2.0’, argues Olusoga, ‘is a fanciful vision of the future based on a distorted misremembering of the past.’


23rd March 2017. Eirini Karamouzi, Luc-Andre Brunet ‘Alas, poor Europe’.

Karamouzi, Lecturer at the University of Sheffield and Brunet, Lecturer at the Open University, sketch out the problems facing the EU today.  They discuss the narratives of reconciliation and peace used to encourage integration after the horrors of World War Two and the Cold War and argue that these narratives no longer have the same purchase for European electorates. In order to circumnavigate problems posed by a weak Franco-German relationship, opposition from the US, Russia and Asia, the EU must develop new histories and new narratives which have purchase with the people.  A firm understanding of the history of European integration will, it is claimed, aid this process. 


29th March 2017.  Ed West. ‘History teaches us that Brexit will be okay in the end. Probably.’

Ed West, journalist and author, uses self-proclaimed ‘tenuous historical comparison[s]’ to suggest that societies recover and even prosper in the wake of destructive events such as the War of the Roses.  He moves on to claim that ‘the key to Europe’s historical success has been cultural unity and political fragmentation’, concluding that Brexit may have advantages for Britain.


March 30 2017.  David Thackeray ‘From losing an empire to leaving Europe: Brexit and the British public relationship with the EEC (1961-75)’

David Thackeray, University of Exeter, argues that the supposed lack of a democratic mandate in the EU/EEC is based on a myth which fails to recognise the wide-spread public sympathy towards the EEC for much of the 1960’s, and after Britain’s entry in 1973.  Thackery argues that many contemporary oppositions to the EU have been naturalized by the Leave campaign, and would have seemed bizarre to the British electorate in the past.  Post-Brexit, it is argued, we need to look closely at how Euroscepticism has developed – ‘its myths, conventional wisdoms, selective reading of history and, most importantly, how it has developed a plausible rhetoric of EU “failure”’.   


23rd April 2017. Sean O’Hagan. ‘Will Brexit re-open old wounds with a new hard border in Northern Ireland?’

Journalist Sean O’Hagan recounts his time travelling across the Irish border, and his discussions with local people regarding the possible outcomes of a renewed border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. ‘Depending on who you speak to’, he concludes, ‘the ramifications of a hard Brexit for Northern Ireland seem at best deeply worrying and at worst cataclysmic.’


25th April 2017. David Clayton. ‘What does British imperial economic history tell us about the future of UK-EU trading relations?’

David Clayton, economic historian at the University of York, argues that post-Brexit, trading relations between the EU and the UK will take one of three forms: 1) the UK will remain part of the EU customs union, 2) UK-EU trade will be governed by the World Trade Organisation, 3) the UK and the EU will enter a free trade pact.


June 2017. Ray Bassett. ‘After Brexit, Will Ireland be next to exit?’

Although not written from a particularly historical angle, Ray Bassett’s paper summarises the issues regarding relationships between Britain and Ireland, Ireland and the EU post-Brexit, topics touched on in several articles listed here.  Basset sets out two options for Ireland.  The first is to remain within ‘Team EU’ (either allowing the EU Commission to negotiate the post-Brexit relationship between Ireland and Britain on her behalf, or formulating a bilateral agreement with the UK on what Britain’s deal should be.)  Bassett favours the second option, yet warns that in either case Ireland’s wishes for the free movement of peoples, goods and services between the two islands will be rejected. The second option is ‘Irexit.’  Bassett suggests that Ireland should be prepared to exit the EU if her post-Brexit needs cannot be met. 


16th July 2017 Will Hutton ‘Brexit is our generation’s Dunkirk, but this time there will be no salvation’

Will Hutton discusses the economic and technological advantages enjoyed by Britain during World War Two, and the historical myth circulating within Thatcher’s government which downplayed Britain’s successes between 1931 and 1950.  He uses the cultural narrative of individual heroism built up around Dunkirk to show how easy it is to forget about the strength that ‘industrial activism and state direction’ can lend a country. ‘Brexiters Davis, Fox and Johnson’, Hutton argues, ‘are from the same anti-modern, delusional world view that produced the strategic foreign policy mistakes of the 1930’s and the emasculation of the mixed-economy, state-led approach that underpinned the economic success of 1931-50.’    


22nd August 2017. Robert Priest. ‘Where Now?: Ideological Hubridity and the Future of British Europeanism by Robert Priest’

Robert Priest, Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of London, draws parallels between Brexit and the European revolutions of 1848 – which sought to dismantle traditional feudal structures and create new nation states.  The revolutions were a product of ‘trans-European political disillusionment’ – sentiments embodied, argues Priest, in the 2016 EU referendum and ensuing debates.  In seeking to balance contradictory ideologies such as protectionism and nativism with interconnection and cosmopolitanism, it is claimed, contemporary political elites are following in the footsteps of those who erected new regimes in the wake of the 1848 revolutions.   Priest concludes that Britain and Europe share too many structural and cultural bonds to function independently of each other, claiming that ‘[o]nly through sharing ideas with our neighbours will we be able to develop responses to the centrifugal forces of our age.’


5th September 2017. ‘One Thing After Another’ – The History Department Blog at St Anselm College.

This article complicates Dane Kennedy’s suggestion that Brexit predicates an increase in the trend towards insular history in Britain (see his article, summarized here and published 17th October 2016.)  The author here suggests that Kennedy’s characterisation of the EU referendum as a historical turning point is an oversimplification.  ‘A distaste for political integration with the EU’ argues the author, ‘is not necessarily tantamount to shutting oneself off from the world.’   






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