This is the second in our new series on ‘Radical History after Brexit’, exploring the challenges facing radical history after Britain’s departure from the European Union.

British history is popularly understood as a series of exceptions. Britain was the only humanitarian empire; the only European country to resist Hitler; it is the only nation that hasn’t had a revolution; the only populace resistant to the lure of fascism; the only country that doesn’t brag about its accomplishments. None of this, of course, is true. These myths develop, often, clearly from historic beliefs: the British imperial insistence that there existed no colour bar within the empire, for example, has developed into a popular belief that the British empire was less racist or that the British nation is more committed to racial tolerance than others, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.

‘Britannia Rules the Waves’, Walter John Ingram (Canada, 1914). Wikicommons/British Library.

As well as the empire, the image and iconography of the Second World War has become central to this exceptionalist identity. Plucky little Britain, standing alone, has become a trope that echoes through so much political and historical writing about the country. The famous David Low cartoon, with the soldier pulling himself up to wave his fist at the roiling sky, captioned ‘Very Well, Alone’, was produced in June 1940, in response to the fall of France to the Nazi invasion. Britain was alone in Europe fighting the Axis powers; the British shook their fists, squared their shoulders and carried on regardless. Except that of course Britain was never alone in any sense — as the rival cartoonist Fougasse pointed out, the next month. He drew two soldiers reclining on a grassy knoll smoking and reading the paper: as one remarks on the ‘poor old Empire’ being all alone in the world, the other responds ‘Aye, we are — the whole 500 million of us’.

This sense of isolation — which was so strong during the Brexit campaign, and after — is part of a broader feeling of British exceptionalism: the idea that the nation is something different, distinct from the rest of the world. The concept is borrowed, originally, from American political economy, particularly ideas of manifest destiny, and the assumption that the United States was on a different — superior — trajectory to other nations. With this exceptional identity came a mission to bring about a global transformation. But although the Americans shouted loudly about their exceptionalism, the British had just as strong a strain in their own culture and history. Of course, all countries feel exceptional in their own way, but the British have increasingly built a national myth on a performance of this feeling.

In 2007, Gordon Brown gave a speech in which he set out what he saw as Britain’s values: ‘British tolerance, British belief in liberty and the British sense of fair play’. Brown wanted to produce a formal statement of British values to bolster patriotism; this never came to pass, but the idea of formal British values survived, and are now taught in British schools and enshrined as part of the PREVENT counter-terrorism duty. These are, apparently, democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Until 2014 schools merely had to ‘respect’ these values; from 2014, schools had to have a clear policy in place to ‘actively promote’ them, too.

On the face of it, if schools must promote values, these values aren’t so bad. But the problem lies with the definition of these values as fundamentally and distinctly British. How can British schoolchildren avoid an exceptionalist view of British history, if they are being taught that the British are especially tolerant, uniquely respectful of the rule of law, exceptionally democratic, peculiarly committed to liberty? Any benefits to citizenship that come from teaching these values are immediately undermined by the way in which they are presented as uniquely British. This type of chauvinism easily tips over into nationalism and xenophobia; this ‘citizenship’ education is merely a modernised version of the flag waving seen at school Empire Day events in the interwar years. 

‘The Contrast. British Liberty, French Liberty. Which is best?’ (1792); British Museum.

Narratives of exceptionalism sold Brexit, to some extent, as a project that was possible because of these ideas of exception.  And Brexit will certainly be an exceptional event in British and European history — exceptional, in this case, meaning without parallel, rather than superlative.  It is difficult to see how popular histories will become any less exceptional in this context: as people want to understand how Britain got to this point, narratives of difference and distinctiveness will prevail. Brexit will become a self-fulfilling cycle of exceptionalism.

For historians, this might be difficult to resist. Writing about difference is interesting. Popular history tends towards exceptionalism — exceptional women, exceptional times, exceptional nations — because people understand stories to some extent as being about exceptions. This is not only a problem inherent to British history writing, with many nations celebrating their national character as exemplified in their national heroes, who all stand as exceptions in their own way. After all, what is the allure of the ordinary? Finding ways that Britain bucked the trend might feel more worthwhile than listing all the ways in which it echoed other nations. And it is hard to ignore, too, that telling stories of British uniqueness is telling audiences what they want to hear, and giving readers and viewers what they want. Resisting these stories comes at a cost: you have to have a thick skin to enjoy telling people that their beliefs about their own national identity are wrong, that their country isn’t special. 

Of course, perversely, some historians might enjoy this — or at least, might see a value in flattening difference, and arguing that Britain has not, historically, been so distinctive after all. In 2016, a group of historians under the collective title Historians for Britain were published in History Today arguing that Britain’s ‘unique history’ set it apart from Europe, and used this argument to support the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. Another group of historians — of which I was one — responded, with the argument that  ‘Britain’s past is neither so exalted nor so unique’. Positioning Britain historically within an entangled network of connections — but also arguing that Britain wasn’t special, in any meaningful sense — was part of our own political project. 

Of course, historians might sometimes be accused of having a stubborn desire to turn exceptionalism on its head. Those who see the shady figure of the Politically Correct Historian hiding around every library stack might feel that our community is, in fact, committed to its own form of exceptionalism: arguing that Britain was uniquely problematic compared to other nations. In my own work, I have sometimes felt like I am arguing myself into a circle, in which I posit that the British have a uniquely problematic relationship with their own history, and so fall into the trap of exceptionalism once again. When writing about the ways that the memory, forgetting and misremembering of the empire has created Britain’s current political crisis, I find it hard to step back and see this as part of a broader problem of European imperialism; just as men in pubs argue at me that the empire was uniquely benign, so I sometimes see it as uniquely malicious. And it is tempting, as a historian, to claim that Britain is especially bad at picking apart the popular memory of its role in the Second World War; but this claim comes as much from my own frustration at tabloids and politicians mentioning the war at every opportunity — and, given my family history with one German and one British grandfather, my own subjectivities — as it does from an analytical measuring of British war stories against those of other nations. 

‘Your Britain: Fight for it now’, Frank Newbould (1942); Imperial War Museum.

Historians can and should work to problematize exceptionalism. For example, when our schools have to actively promote ‘British values’, historians can demonstrate that British society has not in fact been ‘tolerant’ or committed to the ‘rule of law’, and can show how other cultures and communities have also aspired to ‘democracy’ or ‘individual liberty’. Historians have a duty, I think, to try to counter bad history — not to condescend to the public for not knowing about the past, and not to rail against the ‘dumbing down’ of historical narratives, but to call out politicians and the media when they try to promote ahistorical narratives of British uniqueness, exceptionalism or glory. 

Being a historian in a post-Brexit reality is going to come with broader tensions, too. The academic job market is already fragile and likely to be further devastated in a post-Brexit, post-COVID world. Arguments about whether and how to fund the arts and humanities are going to be ramped up in this context, in the context of a wider culture war that takes aim at supposed metropolitan intellectual elites and sees any money committed to humanities over STEM subjects as a pointless indulgence. Historians — like me — who worry away at questions of British identity, who think critically about histories of race and class and gender and how they fit into today’s identity politics, and who try to problematize patriotism and pull at the threads of public memory, are not popular figures right now and are unlikely to become more so. Pushing against exceptionalism is necessary but it isn’t necessarily going to be received enthusiastically. 

Maybe instead we need to learn how to work with this tension. For better or worse, exceptionalism is embedded in the British national narrative — rather than trying constantly to refute it, perhaps we also have to put more work into understanding it. I am trying to work out how to write with exceptionalism — like Ann Laura Stoler tells us to read colonial archives both along, as well as against, the grain. I’m increasingly convinced that we need to work with these stories of exceptionalism, to try to work out how they work, where their narrative power lies, and what function they perform. After all, when we are thinking about public histories, it is as important to ask what these histories do as what they say.

Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley is a lecturer in twentieth century British history at the University of Southampton. She is writing a book, Imperial Island, which traces the ways that empire and decolonisation have left their mark on British history, society, politics and culture, and shaped the lives of ordinary people. She is on Twitter as @lottelydia

4 Comments

  1. Terry Hunt

    I concur as an ex history and sociology teacher. We have a responsibility to have open and truthful dialogue.

  2. Kenichi Yasuoka

    I totally agree with you as a Japanese historian who studies Japanese modern history. Exceptionalism is quite popular here, too…

  3. Neil Evans

    Excellent; a fine essay. I especially liked the teasing out of two meanings or shades of exceptionalism. Much American exceptionalism was the result of Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’ which stressed the availability of ‘free land’ (!) and the lack of a feudal past compared with Europe. The German Sonderweg by contrast was a view which stressed the persistence of feudal elements; British scholars of German were leading critics of this, partly, it seems to me, because they were more critical of the British past against which Germany was being compared. Systematic and critical comparisons could be helpful.

  4. Malcolm Ace

    I was surprised and disappointed when Gordon Brown started the discussion on Britishness and made a few cheap sound bites, completely out of character of a deep thinking conviction politician. In retrospect he was anticipating and trying to mitigate the feelings that led 10 years later to the referendum result. Brown didn’t quite crack it, but he was closer than anyone of the left to understand it well before the whirlwind started to be reaped

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