‘Historians for Britain’ vs ‘Historians for Europe’

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Platform, Volume 23

Perspectives from an Irish comparative historian

Laurence Olivier in Henry V (1944). According to ‘Historians for Britain’ (HfB), ‘ancient institutions, such as the monarchy … have survived (and evolved) with scarcely a break over many centuries’.

Laurence Olivier in Henry V (1944). According to ‘Historians for Britain’ (HfB), ‘ancient institutions, such as the monarchy … have survived (and evolved) with scarcely a break over many centuries’.

A minor controversy has broken out recently in the British historical world surrounding the establishment of a group called ‘Historians for Britain’ (HfB), which (in the context of the debate surrounding the UK’s place in the EU) believes that the time has come to recognise, or rather re-recognise, the basic distinctiveness, even uniqueness, of British history vis-à-vis Europe. Ironically, this call was publicised in History Today by Professor David Abulafia of Cambridge, who specialises in Mediterranean history and whose formidable scholarship has focused on that region throughout his career. The involvement of Andrew Roberts and David Starkey is much less remarkable.

It is unfortunate, if unsurprising, that this debate is so openly politicised by the ‘Historians for Britain’ group. At least it demonstrates the continued value of studying nationalist or ‘patriotic’ constructs of a given country’s history and how they affect historical professions and the popular consumption of history. In response to the ‘Historians for Britain’ statement, another group, ‘Historians for History’ (based at my Alma Mater, Royal Holloway, University of London), referred to the former’s ‘highly reductive distortion of the history of the United Kingdom’ and its authors’ error in having ‘interpreted the past to fit their desire to see a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership in the present’. There is much that seems to be more wishful thinking than rigorous history in the HfB statement: claims that ‘the British parliament embodies prin-ciples of political conduct that have their roots in the thirteenth century, or earlier’, that ‘ancient institutions, such as the monarchy and several universities, have survived (and evolved) with scarcely a break over many centuries’, that ‘the British political temper’ (note the definite article and the singular noun) ‘has been milder than that in larger European countries’, and so on. In the preoccupation with continuity, and making the contrast with the fractured state of European national histories, the presence of ‘Whig history’ is inescapable. When ‘Britain’s’ engagement with Europe is mentioned, it seems to be one-directional, extending outwards: English conquests in France, English and later British alliance-making, the presence of the Gibraltar colony, the alliances with France and Poland that obliged Britain to declare war in 1939, and so on. The manifesto’s dry remark that, in contrast to engagement within Europe, ‘Britain still ruled over vast tracts of the globe, very far from Europe’, will catch the eye of an Irish reader without requiring much explanation. The statement almost totally glosses over the fact that ‘Britain’ was not merely England writ large.

As that rare thing, an Irish historian (of British birth and residence) whose focus is on the continental European comparative, these debates hold a definite interest for me. We can condemn the writers of the HfB statement for their blatantly partisan claims but should remember that, if anything, the ‘parochial’ method of studying modern Irish history (this should be emphasised, as it is not so much the case among Irish medievalists and early modernists) is significantly more entrenched; Irish historians are much more averse to rigorous and sustained comparison, especially in relation to continental European contexts, than their British counterparts. This holds true, as Niall Whelehan has pointed out, for even those most clearly ‘transnational’ aspects of the modern Irish historical experience, such as nationalism and migration. Despite a formidable range of Irish political, social, cultural and intellectual links with the Continent, particularly up to c. 1800, relatively little is written about them, and scarcely anything that can appeal to the general reader outside the university. What is known about these links in the modern period tends to come back to the grand narratives of Irish history, principally the movement towards independence and the story of Irish emigration and diaspora, as if pulled by magnetism. The disinclination to write comparative history has in some ways been influenced by Irish political and cultural history, but it has also hindered the development of Irish historiography. It is a direct result, in fact, of a problem ignored by the HfB statement writers: the question of ‘which Europe’? Some of the most important work done in cultural history in recent years has demonstrated the degree to which the term ‘Europe’ has many meanings, often politically charged ones. ‘Europe’ has been used to denote civility and barbarism, centrality and peripherality, and the profound difference between countries possessing ‘real’ history and those that do not. The cultural borders of Europe have shifted and changed just like the political ones, from the days of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Iron Curtain. This has affected Irish history profoundly: since the time of David Hume until independence, and later, Irish historians were burdened with starting from a position of arguing that their country’s history was worth writing, and that Ireland was not some ‘other’ aboriginal land oddly located off the coast of Britain. On the occasions when eminent European historians took Irish history seriously (Friedrich Engels, who left behind draft materials for a general history of Ireland, is a notable example), they still often displayed a patronising attitude towards it, often as a kind of morbid curiosity.

It is unusual for serious historians to deal in sonderweg [special path] narratives; the tendentious fallacies employed in the HfB statement show why this is and should be so. Nevertheless, the question arises: could a similar ‘Historians for Ireland’ group emerge? The answer would seem to be ‘no’, and not just because Irish Euro-scepticism is ethereal in comparison to British Euro-scepticism, nor because of the general lack of engagement among modern Irish historians with Europe. The self-importance demonstrated in the HfB statement would not be possible; the argument for an Irish historical continuity from ‘ancient institutions’ to modern democracy that didn’t require the beneficence of foreigners wouldn’t work. Whereas Irish historians and writers once celebrated the ancient continuity of Irish religious devotion, this is obsolete in a country that has just legalised same-sex marriage. The notion of Ireland’s place in Europe was never completely buried by the Irish nationalist story, and was sometimes even embraced by it, but it did not become widely embraced by state and society until Ireland became a member of the European Community and could finally begin to escape the overwhelming influence of Britain, which seemed at times to question the degree of Irish independence. Is, therefore, the ‘particularity’ of Irish history as that of a historically weak and peripheral country beneficial to a pro-European outlook, just as the (assumed) ‘uniqueness’ of British history as that of a powerful and central country suggests that Britain is not quite a part of Europe? Does the apparent ease with which Ireland has assumed a European identity not in fact support a point made by the HfB statement writers? Given the way in which Europe is presented as a negative ‘other’, a place where very bad things happened from which Blighty was largely spared, my answer would be that it does not. Ireland and Greece are two historically weak and peripheral countries at the geographical margins of Europe, but attitudes towards Europe as polity clearly differ between these places. While Irish historiography has arguably suffered from a lack of engagement with continental Europe, this has perhaps contributed to the ease with which Ireland since the 1970s has adapted to its position as a relatively unimportant member state of the EU. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that, so far as comparison goes, Ireland’s historical relations with Europe have been mostly asymmetric and that this will affect how they are studied.

There is much that remains to be done to examine how perceptions of Europe and Ireland’s place therein have figured in Irish historical thought and debate since the end of the eighteenth century. An Irish view on the ‘Historians for Britain’ dogma clearly allows us to see its many faults but we ought not to lose sight of how Irish historiography’s apparent lack of angst vis-à-vis the country’s political place within Europe is a reflection of deeper problems within. If ignorance is bliss (or, to use a synonym, oblivion), history is not about being self-satisfied either individually or collectively, and certainly not in Ireland. Ultimately, it must be constantly restated that all serious historians should resist placing history at the service of any political narrative, no matter how liberal, progressive and non-nationalist that narrative might be.

Shane Nagle was recently awarded a Ph.D on ‘Historical narratives and European nationalisms: Germany and Ireland in comparison’ from Royal Holloway, University of London.

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