Historians weigh in on Britain’s relationship with Europe

Not everyone is a fan of a campaign to highlight ‘the historical myths that surround the EU'

May 28, 2015
Map of Europe with flag pins on countries

“Historians for Britain” is, according to its website, a campaign headed by some of Britain’s leading historians and academics who believe that there needs to be a substantial change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

The group plans to produce research, speeches and seminars in order to highlight what it describes as “the historical myths that surround the EU and look at Britain’s troubled history with the Union”. The campaigners were, they say, “inspired by a group of historians who signed a letter to The Times in 2013 calling for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU”.

Its website lists a number of its illustrious supporters. They include David Starkey, television presenter and honorary fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge; David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge; author and broadcaster Amanda Foreman; and Andrew Roberts, visiting professor in the war studies department at King’s College London.

A number of choice quotes from supporting academics are displayed on the site, including one from Nigel Saul, professor of medieval history at Royal Holloway, University of London, who says that the single currency is “wrecking lives in the Mediterranean”. Dr Abulafia says that the EU “has to change”.

Not everyone agrees. In fact, the group has attracted a barrage of criticism online, particularly after an article penned by Dr Abulafia appeared on the History Today website on 11 May. In it, he writes that the “British political temper has been milder than that in the larger European countries”, pointing out that “Fascism and antisemitism never struck deep roots here”.

Academics on Twitter were less than impressed. “Can’t believe this #historiansforbritain crap,” said Kathryn Maude (@krmaude), a “feminist, activist, medievalist, anglo-saxonist, gin-lover, knitting enthusiast” and PhD student based at King’s College London. Some also started a rival hashtag: #historiansforeurope.

“Does antisemitism need to have concentration camps to be recognized as having ‘deep roots’?” asked “antiquarian” and “early modernist/medievalist” Sjoerd Levelt (@SLevelt). Sarah Crook (@SarahRoseCrook), a “social historian” and PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, said that Historians for Britain offered an “unconvincing argument poorly supported by evidence”.

There were blogs in response, too. The History Matters blog from the University of Sheffield carried a post by Charles West (@Pseudo_Isidore), the institution’s senior lecturer in medieval history. “From an early medieval perspective, at least, it cannot be said that England has always stood apart from continental affairs,” he writes. “On the contrary, for England to continue to play a key and immediate role in those affairs in the future would be wholly consonant with the country’s very deepest roots.”

History Today later carried an open letter, signed by more than 250 historians opposed to the original article.

“Political, social, cultural, and economic life in Britain has always depended on, drawn upon, and given back to Europe,” it says. “Britain’s past – and, therefore, its future – must be understood in the context of a complex, messy, exciting, and above all continuous interaction with European neighbours and indeed with the rest of the world.”

Chris Parr

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tesglobal.com

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Article originally published as: THE Scholarly Web (28 May 2015)

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