Radical Books

The Brexit Syllabus: British History for Brexiteers

On 23rd June 2016, 51.9% of British and Commonwealth citizens who voted in the European Union referendum voted for Britain to leave the EU; or, in the words of the Leave campaign, to ‘take back control.’ Despite a cacophony of voices attempting to pin down the exact demographic profile of ‘leave’ voters, there is no consensus over who voted leave or their key reasons. Yet, as the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has recently reiterated, much of the Leave campaign targeted immigration policies and claimed that a vote to leave the EU would allow Britain to control its own borders and reduce immigration.

'Little England (was Great Britain)' (Image Flickr Creative Commons)
‘Little England (was Great Britain)’ (Image Flickr Creative Commons)

In the aftermath of the referendum, the Leave campaign’s stirring of anti-immigrant sentiment unleashed a swathe of hate crimes, which targeted Eastern Europeans and Muslims in particular. Emboldened by the political endorsement of racism and xenophobia, Britain’s many racists appeared ever-more vocal; racially motivated hate crime rose five-fold in the first week after Brexit.

'March for Europe' (Photo: Alex White)
‘March for Europe’ (Photo: Alex White)

It is too early to see what the longer term, structural consequences of the ‘Brexit’ decision are likely to be and despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s claim that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, she is yet to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which officially notifies the EU of the UK’s decision to leave. However, it is clear from the ‘Leave’ campaign and interviews with people who voted to leave the EU, that nostalgia for empire and particularly the imagined community of World War Two played a considerable role in swaying people’s vote.

The Brexit Syllabus therefore looks at nostalgia and the narrative of British history. It then offers a response to some of the key, popular justifications for Brexit based on recent historiographical research and debate. This reading list is not definitive, neither is it designed as a means of justifying staying in the EU. Rather, the aim is to interrogate the spurious historical foundations upon which Brexit was fought and legitimized, and to open up a conversation among historians about how we teach British history in the aftermath of Brexit.

This syllabus was originally presented as a paper at the ‘Britain, Knowledge, Empire’ seminar, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign on 29th August 2016. Thanks to Antoinette Burton and Dana Rabin, as well as to Caoimhe McGuinness and Humaira Saeed for reading suggestions.

Overview and methods

1. Introduction: Brexit and British History – is there any connection?

  • Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: past and present in contemporary culture (1994) – introduction.
  • Nira Yuval Davis, ‘Belonging and the Politics of Belonging,’ Patterns of Prejudice, 40:3 (2006), 197-214.

2. Methods: the difference between history and nostalgia

  • John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (5th ed, 2010).

3. British history, nationalism and nostalgia

4. Interrelationships: Britain, Europe and Empire in history

  • Catherine Hall, ‘Introduction: thinking the postcolonial, thinking the empire,’ in Catherine Hall (ed), Cultures of Empire (2000).
  • Antoinette Burton, ‘Who Needs the Nation: interrogating ‘British’ history,’ in Catherine Hall (ed), Cultures of Empire (2000).


5. We just want to make Britain great again …’

  • Paula Krebs, Gender, Race and the Writing of Empire: Public Discourse and the Boer War (1999).
  • Dawson, Graham, ‘The Blond Bedouin: Lawrence of Arabia, imperial adventure and the imagining of British masculinity’, in Michael Roper and John Tosh (eds), Manful Assertions (1991).

6. ‘We didn’t fight two world wars for this.’

  • Angela Woollacott, “‘Khaki Fever’ and Its Control: Gender, Class, Age and Sexual Morality on the British Homefront in the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 29 (April 1994), 325-47.
  • Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1982)

7. ‘We won two world wars …’

  • Bland, Lucy, ‘White women and men of colour: miscegenation fears in Britain after the Great War’, Gender & History, 17:1 (2005), 29–61.

8. (Hang on, who won two world wars?)

  • Santanu Das, ed. Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2011).
  • Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain (2003).

9. ‘We survived the Blitz.’

  • Rose, Sonya O., ‘Sex, citizenship, and the nation in World War II Britain’, American Historical Review, 103 (1998).

10. ‘We’re an extremely tolerant nation …’

  • Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain (2009).
  • Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (2000).

11. ‘… but it’s gone too far now.’

  • Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and citizenship in the Post-war era (1997).

12. ‘We’re not racist, but …’

  • Gail Lewis, ‘Welfare and the social construction of “race”’ in Esther Saraga (ed), Embodying the social: Constructions of Difference (1998).
  • Heidi Safia Mizra, “Introduction: Mapping a Genealogy of Black British Feminism” in Black British Feminism: A Reader (1997).

13. ‘They’re just not like us’

  • Ambalavaner Sivanandan, A Different Hunger: writings on black resistance (1982).
  • Umut Erel, Migrant Women Transforming Citizenship : life-stories from Britain and Germany (2009).

14. ‘It’s not about race, it’s about immigration.’

  • Wendy Webster, “There’ll Always be an England:” Representations of Colonial Wars and Immigration, 1948-1968” in Stephen Howe (ed), The New Imperial Histories Reader, 284-305.

15. ‘It’s not about race, it’s about Islam and the clash of civilizations’

  • Seema Alavi, Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (2015).
  • Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, The Crisis of Multiculturalism: racism in a neo-liberal age (2011).

16. ‘We just can’t afford them.’

  • Rebecca Bramall, The Cultural Politics of Austerity: past and present in austere times (2013).
  • My Beautiful Laundrette, dir. Stephen Frears (1985).

17. ‘It’s about all that red tape and political correctness from Europe.’

18. ‘We’re better off with the Commonwealth.’

  • Matthew Carr, Fortress Europe: dispatches from a gated continent (2nd ed, 2016).
  • Gail Lewis, ‘Journeying Toward the Nation(al): cultural difference at the crossroads of Old and New Globalizations, Mobilities, 1:3 (2006), 333-352.

Longing, belonging and ‘beleaving’

18. ‘Beleaving’ in Britain: Scotland and Empire

  • T.M. Devine, “The Break Up of Britain? Scotland and the End of Empire,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 16 (2006), 163-180.

19. ‘Beleaving’ in Britain: Northern Ireland and Empire

  • Robert Savage, The BBC’s Irish Troubles: television, conflict and Northern Ireland (2015).

20. Who be leaving Britain? (class and mobility)

  • Lisa McKenzie, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015).
  • Owen Jones, Chavs: the demonization of the working class (2011).

21. Who caused Brexit?

  • John Lanchester, ‘Brexit Blues,’ LRB, 38: 15 (2016).

22. Post-imperial Britain?

  • Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (2008).


  1. Can I suggest you clever and oh so right Academics might spend more time listening to the concerns and genuine fears of Brexiteers and you might be surprised to learn that it was recognition of patronising and insulting generalisations put forward by the Remain camp that hardened many peoples resolve to tell their “betters” the EU is your creation and your fine ideal, it isn’t ours and we don’t want it. And I never met any Brexit voters here in the North who expressed nostalgia for the Empire or WWII what I heard was anger at an establishment that had failed the North and neglected it and then accused people, who didn’t find competing for jobs and scarce resources with an ever increasing flow of immigrants either positive in its impact or something they wanted to continue, of being rascists, neo-fascists, ignorant, dupes, stupid not fit to vote…. Just because a person’s experience of the world is different from yours don’t patronise or insult them. And what many Brexiteers recognised was, this was a one off decisive vote that gave them the chance to apply an electoral slap to the smug faces of those who have chosen for decades not to consult them on the EU or it’s implications.

    1. Hi Brian, totally agree that for many people a who voted to leave the EU it was a protest vote against austerity, under investment and the elite club who run Parliament. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the EU, which is a huge, bureaucratic, neo-liberal, capitalist entity and I was never particularly invested in the Remain campaign. However, there is no denying that the media and much of the Leave campaign stirred up hate against refugees and immigrants, rallying stereotypes and slogans that have a long history in this country. One of the first readings by Paula Krebs looks at the relationship between the media, the working classes and popular nationalism during the Boer War. That may have been over 100 years ago but the resonances are many. I’m not suggesting that all Brexiteers are racist, or imperial nostalgists, but if you watch the many media interviews in the aftermath of Brexit and analyse much of the media’s and the Leave campaigns message, they are heavily about going back to a better time. From a working class perspective, white, black, Asian, Jewish … whoever, that ‘better time’ is a myth. We can agree to disagree over the impetus behind, and the effects, of the vote for Brexit but whichever way we lean, we need history in order to understand the longer and wider context of this vote.

    2. I wish I could “like” Brian’s comment. The problem with so-called “left” academics is that they have no personal experience of what a working class life is like, or what misery and chaos their policies cause “lesser” mortals who do not have their (pseudo) education. Onni, did you get permission to publicize that photograph of a private house? Are you aware that you are inciting hatred (and possibly violence) against someone’s home? That cliché term “Little England”, by the way, is displayed nowhere in the banner the homeowner has displayed. It is academia, not ordinary folks, who inhabit “Little England”

  2. I hope the ‘electoral slap’ you have issued to the ‘smug faces’ does not rebound in your own face as companies pull out of the UK, the value of yours or your family’s pensions decrease, the cost of imports increases and people are made redundant. Generally slapping others indicates that you are out of control yourself. Taking back control would require more mature action including reaching out to others of different views. Good luck

  3. Fantastic syllabus! Are you teaching this? If so, what kinds of reactions have you had in the classroom? Curious to know.

    1. Hi Ananya,
      Thanks for your comment. I taught many of the readings for this syllabus a few years ago to a small group of US students at the University of Illinois as part of a class called, ‘British History from Below.’ They generally did well but I think it would be quite a different experience teaching it to students in Britain; I usually get one or two on survey courses who object to the critique of Empire or the idea that Britain, too, has a history of racism.

  4. You have raised some very important points concerning how we teach British History. I think the problem of glorifying British History has a lot to do with what is excluded from GCSE and A Level history syllabus which seems to jump from the Tudor period to WWI. While the imperial 400 years might be uncomfortable for teachers to teach given the multicultural element of society of today, not teaching it, I believe has helped to solidify the historical myth that Britain’s Empire was benign and at worst, a good thing for everyone. This has arguably left many in post imperial Britain believing we may have lost something of ourselves en route here. It’s a shame we are uncomfortable with confronting the more ugly side of British history.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think it’s a really interesting point and how history is taught at school is extremely important. I’m not as familiar with the GSCE and ‘A’ Level curriculum now as I was a few years ago and it may have changed (see Jinty Nelson’s comment below) but I think, in addition to your point, the focus on Civil Rights in the USA (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, etc.) tends to suggest that Britain had no racism to deal with. The idea that everything was, and is, so much worse in the USA gives the UK the opportunity to be self-congratulatory rather than self-interrogatory.

  5. Hi Onni – a small point: it’s Peter Fryer, not Peter Fry (and I think there’s been a second edition of Staying Power). On your ‘tolerant’ section of the reading list, citing 1919 and Cable Street: I’ve been studying the interwar period recently and, frankly, it shines by comparison with the present. 1,000 Kinder a month from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in the build-up to 1939 compared with how many children from Calais now? 80,000 refugees from Nazism overall at a time when the country was considerably less wealthy than it boasts of being at present; and only a relatively tiny organised fascist movement. Ironically, the sense of being part of a large empire may have contributed to the degree of tolerance and stability that existed – people didn’t feel so vulnerable and threatened as they do now. See, ahem, my forthcoming book, Christian and Jewish Women in Britain, c. 1880-1940: Living With Difference (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).

    1. Thanks for the Fryer correction, Anne. The syllabus has been updated.

    2. Thanks for the correction, Anne. Looking forward to reading your book! I’m not actually a 20th century historian, so these insights are fascinating and a really interesting point of comparison. When I was thinking about the ‘we’re an extremely tolerant nation’ section I was interested less in the ‘tolerance’ part and more in who constitutes the ‘we.’ It’s clear that many British people of Black, Asian and Jewish descent were in favour of Brexit and often on anti-immigrant grounds. So I wasn’t really using Cable Street and 1919 as examples of a lack of tolerance on the part of white British people (who might think of themselves as ‘really’ British) but the amnesia of many BME British communities about their own histories of struggle.

  6. The OCR Exam Board’s new GCSE history module, ‘Migration into Britain’ will go ‘live’ later this month. Its date range has been extended back beyond 1000 to include two of the most significant migrations – those of Anglo-Saxons and of Scandinavians. The module as a whole will enlarge the perceptions of students at this level to include an understanding of good, bad, and ugly aspects of the history of these islands. Close study of recurrent and in some cases very long-term processes of cultural interaction and formation (e.g. in linguistic change) won’t only help students to appreciate how varied and complicated were the forms and consequences of migration: it will enable them to deconstruct some hoary myths.

  7. Thanks for this and it is really interesting. I am troubled though by the fact that it is almost exclusively focused on one, albeit very important, strand of the Leave vote and the related histories/knowledges that might help us to look critically at the vote, outcome, UK history and the UK History syllabus. But there is little critical attention given to the particularities (historical and current) of class and inequality in the UK – and how this also fed into the vote. In other words, depending on a number of factors (alongside racism, nationalism, nostalgia for Empire etc.) there have been additional and very real differences in who benefited from neoliberal economics and how the EU put these into play, the Labour turn to neoliberalism under Blair, local and regional factors in how these issues played out. So yeah, I think there are important insights and readings here – much-needed even, but I also think they are being asked to service a less-than- complete overarching narrative. So as it stands, this is a little bit rigged and despite your genuine disclaimers, it may not do enough to examine how voting intentions were shaped by those other factors. Where are the contemporary accounts that address this – Pilger or Greenwald for instance? And of the many terrific authors listed, I am guessing a few might raise a similar objection. (BTW, I voted Remain, and was heartbroken by the result, indeed for many of the reasons covered by this syllabus).

    1. Hi Amy,
      Thanks for your comment and engagement. If you have additional readings that would fit under the different headings, please do note them in the comments here and we’ll add them to the syllabus. It’s not a ‘real’ syllabus, in the sense that I’m not actually teaching it, and no syllabus can be definitive, it’s about opening up a space for discussion and collaboration.
      That said, I really don’t agree that the readings leave out questions of class and inequality, although I have tried to steer clear of any specific teleology of the history of class and inequality in Britain and of promoting an overarching narrative. Every single one of these readings addresses the question of class as it intersects with race and gender, it is all about inequality. From, Krebs who deals specifically with the white working classes and their relationship to Empire, to Sonya Rose, who looks at white working-class women’s interactions with Black US GIs, to Sivanandan who looks at working class strikers (who happen to also be first and second generation immigrants from South Asia) to Owen Jones who looks at the white working classes. Stuart Hall’s discussions of neo-liberalism have always been about the changing political landscape and its effect on class dynamics, as they intersect with racial and gendered dynamics. I’d be very interested to know why this doesn’t come across in the readings or the titles as they’re laid out in the syllabus – is it, perhaps, due to the titles of books and how they suggest a certain topic? Is it about the way I’ve represented and outlined the syllabus in in the intro? Is it the order of the topics?
      I think every syllabus is ‘rigged’ towards some kind of narrative, without that ‘rigging’ it would have little or no coherence. I’d be really interested to know what alternative narrative ‘rigging’ would look like.

  8. The syllabus and commentary address something we need urgently: a historically informed understanding of Brexit. Great. But they also illustrate a tendency on the left to complacency and condescension that befuddle our response to the referendum result. Let me explain. I see “complacency” in the assumption that so many of the topics that have energized historians of modern Britain over the past decade or so (conveniently enough) are the ones that explain the referendum’s unexpected outcome. I see “condescension” in the reluctance to engage with the experiences, perspectives and values that drove the “no” vote other than as facets of nostalgia and racism.

    If our ready-made reading of history holds the key to Brexit then why did it take so many of us by surprise? History took a swerve that few of us were expecting and playing favourite tunes from our intellectual jukebox hardly seems an adequate response to the present conjuncture.

    When the forward march of Labour halted it triggered a creative intellectual ferment and an attempt to deal with the pull and power of Thatcherism. Now a great deal more has been halted than the forward march of Labour and what are we given? Nostalgia for empire and the Second World War! Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places but I don’t have the impression that Brexit was shaped by themes that tell us more about the immediate post-war decades than the present moment. (It is the case that Britain’s experience of World War II was unlike that of other countries in the EU and this had important consequences for both history and memory but the sneer of ‘nostalgia’ stands in the way of analysis.)

    This comfortable disdain does not approach many of the key issues that drove Brexit. These issues should be troubling for the left: the impact of historically unprecedented levels of immigration on labour and housing markets, public space, and the idea of ‘community’, the rejection of expertise and of professional politicians, the impact of austerity and of the collapse of Keynesianism on attitudes to the state as a force for improvement and social justice. And there is much else, no doubt.

    I can imagine a history syllabus that addresses Brexit through these questions. But a precondition for understanding is a degree of intellectual and political humility; and that’s because one thing is clear to me – we did not see this coming.

  9. Onni – this reading list is an achievement and a challenge. By reconstructing a lineage of race and nostalgia for Empire and War in recent British historiography you run so close to the headline arguments of the Leave campaign that you risk affirming their vision and values. 17m people voted Leave in the European referendum but approx. 15m didn’t – even though most of the latter shared the wish for reform of the EU itself: its bureaucracy, lack of effective democracy and power of the Banks in the EU’s political and fiscal institutions. History is about argument, it’s about people who disagree, are divided economically, culturally and politically sometimes within themselves at the same time. For these reasons, I would add to the reading list both Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, Europe’s Twentieth Century (1998), and Tony Judt’s Postwar, a History of Europe since 1945 (2007), in particular Mazower’s Epilogue, and Judt’s on Memory. Both authors offer brilliant essays on method, tell disturbing stories, and both remind readers how fragile and by no means inevitable liberal democracy was throughout Europe after Versailles; how exhausted nations built welfare states as bulwarks of democracy, fearing the resurgence of fascism and totalitarianism – in different forms – in the context of vast movements of population, economic devastation and during the Cold War. This was the context for the always critical reception of the EU since its formation. 20thc European history needs to be foregrounded.

    At a local level, Sarah Waters’ novel Night Watch (2006), messes with modern memories of the Blitz. Richard Titmuss, Essays on the Welfare State (1957) would remind us what some Britons thought they were ‘fighting’ for, and how tough it was to build the ‘common good’ in the forties and fifties. Alison Light’s Common People (2013) reminds us that migration was a means of survival for generations of British people until 1945, and that generational memory dies hard.

    I won’t go on – o yes I will. Mike Savage and others’ reconfiguration of class in Social Class in the 21st Century (2015) makes a dense but lucid analysis of class in Britain today, and Selina Todd’s The People (2014) retells the history of the English wo-c in the 20thc (several comments ask for class). Following the example of Bill Schwarz (on the Brexit list) White Man’s Burden, whose forensic analysis of popular memory of empire mid-20thc paid close attention to the media, I would put Happy Valley, or a couple of episodes of Luther up there, or best of all, and most provocatively, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – the most troubling if exhilarating state of the nation play seen in a long time. Finally or as well, since Paul Gilroy’s Melancholia resonates with unconscious fears and dread, why not add Freud’s Civlisation and its Discontents (1930) at the end of the list. By then, historians will ready to think again about how the outside world enters the mind and the limits of human desire.

  10. I would add to the discussion of Britishness above the three volumes edited by Raphael on ‘Patriotism’ in the context of the eighties and Mrs Thatcher – trying to understand the difference between nationalisms, nostalgia and cultural myths, of different kinds.

  11. Sadly I won`t have time to chase up the reading list, or – not being an academic – access to most of the titles. But it does seem to me that changes in education have done a great deal of damage where history is concerned. This idea of having particular chunks of history – the Tudors, the rise of Hitler etc, – leaving teachers to chose not the most relevant areas, but those with most resources, has not helped. And judging from my experience in helping students organise their essays etc, they are not learning to think logically.

  12. Good write-up, I’m normal visitor of one’s site, maintain up the excellent operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor for a lengthy time.

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