This is part of our series on ‘Radical History after Brexit’, exploring the challenges facing radical history after Britain’s departure from the European Union.
‘We cannot now try to edit or censor our past’, wrote Boris Johnson recently regarding protests against monuments to imperialist and racist figures. ‘We cannot pretend to have a different history’.
What a shock the past few years must have been to the Prime Minister.
To use the kind of overblown martial rhetoric Johnson and his Brexiteer allies have made their hallmark, Brexit has been a ‘war’ on history from the beginning; and history has been losing. Not in the sense that ‘history’ (however conceived) demanded a Remain vote, but in the sense that the Brexit project – and the ‘culture war’ its authors have now launched – has been an attack on historical ways of thinking about the world.
In place of perspective and analysis, we have had an ahistorical Brexit bingo designed to mislead, to bury the practical arguments for European solidarity and cooperation beneath nationalist myths. The EU is not the Soviet Union or Hitler’s Reich, and Britain has not been treated like a ‘colony’ or a ‘vassal state’. Brexit was not a revolt of ‘slaves against their owners’, the Glorious Revolution, the Reformation, the Norman Conquest or the Saxon revolt against the Danegeld. Theresa May is not Boudicca or Cardinal Wolsey, Boris Johnson is not Henry VIII, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, or Winston Churchill. It is not 1939, 1914, 1776, 1689, 1534, or 1066 again. Now is not then, precisely because then contributed to the construction of now, just as now contributes to our constructions of then. History does not repeat itself; it just keeps happening.
So, what has happened?
As the midsummer dawn broke the morning after the referendum four years ago, I sat bleary-eyed on my couch in south London watching David Dimbleby announce the result. My brother and I headed for breakfast at the greasy spoon café near Waterloo that doubles as a Thai restaurant. There was an odd atmosphere around the city, an awareness that something very significant had happened, but also a sort of confusion: Google searches for ‘What is the EU?’ spiked on the morning of the 24th of June.
For European immigrants living in the UK, the result was an emotional blow. Media coverage and the Leave campaigns had created a fevered social tension. Just a week before polling day, pro-Remain MP Jo Cox was murdered on a Yorkshire street by a far-right terrorist who considered her ‘a collaborator and a traitor’. Seeing Nigel Farage declare that ‘Independence Day’ had been won ‘without a single bullet being fired’ was particularly galling.
In need of random distraction, we played nine holes of golf on the pay-as-you-play course that used to wind its way around Springfield Hospital in Wandsworth. The ground was almost comically waterlogged from the Biblical deluges of voting day. We had a drink afterwards in the old bowls club in Balham, where I remember thinking about how when I first arrived in the UK as a postgraduate student in 2008, the Labour government was being criticised by David Cameron for adopting the far-right slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’. A lot had happened in eight years.
What kind of four years has it been since? For me and many others it has seen our own personal Brexits, with European departures bringing net EU migration to the UK to its lowest level in nearly 20 years. For immigrant, black, and Asian communities it has seen rising hate crime, racism, and xenophobia. Opponents of an extreme Brexit have become ‘enemies of the people’, ‘saboteurs’, and ‘traitors’.
The UK has (finally) left the EU, but its reputation for competence and stability is in tatters. Globally we have seen the rise of authoritarian populism, #MeToo, climate change activism, and Black Lives Matter. And now we are living through the most disruptive global pandemic for over a century. People would be forgiven for responding to news of another ‘historic moment’ the way Brenda from Bristol reacted to 2017’s snap election: ‘You’re joking – not another one!’. It has been, to the say least, eventful.
Events alone, however, do not make history. That, Raphael Samuel told us, is the work not just of historians but of ‘a thousand different hands’, and the hands that moulded Brexit have been busy. Boris Johnson is ‘in love with history, enchanted by it’, gushed Anthony Seldon recently; ‘not for 50 years has Britain had a prime minister who is so intrigued and affected by history’.
Given his calls to recolonise Africa and generally dubious grasp of the past, we might wish he was less ‘affected’: Richard Evans summarised Johnson’s biography of Churchill (in which the Nazis ahistorically capture Stalingrad), as ‘“One man who made history” by another who seems just to make it up’. But Johnson is not alone in his historical affectations. ‘It is no coincidence’, declared a 2018 article in The Spectator, ‘that many of the leading Brexiteers’ have history degrees: ‘23 June 2016 was the work of the History Boys’.
That work has centred on the idea that history matters a great deal – because Britain’s history is unique and glorious, and must be ‘protected’ – but also that it doesn’t matter at all, because anything uncomfortable or dissenting can be dismissed as what Michael Gove described as ‘the trashing of our past’.
Britain, Liam Fox commented during the 2016 referendum campaign, is ‘one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history’. This probably came as surprising news to the people of Kenya, Malaya, Bengal, Palestine, and Northern Ireland, and indeed to the British governments who almost literally tried to bury the country’s 20th century history by destroying or hiding thousands of documents about imperial crimes. ‘The settler makes history’, wrote Frantz Fanon, ‘and is conscious of making it’.
‘History’, Gove has said, ‘is one of my passions’, and his attempts to reorient school history curriculums were a key precursor to the narratives that would drive Brexit. In place of complexity and global perspective was to be a simple, positive national(ist) story, and those who opposed it – which included historians of all political persuasions – were denounced as ‘the new Enemies of Promise’. Such tactics would become the hallmark of the Leave campaign. ‘People in this country’, Gove infamously declared, ‘have had enough of experts’.
‘Badly understood history’, Marc Bloch once warned, could be the route through which a society ‘may, one day, turn away from history’ altogether. The cynical use of historical analogies for political gain, he worried, could lead to people deciding that ‘good history’ had become meaningless, that it lacked social value, provoking ‘a profound rupture’ in the way we think about the world.
We see this already in the calls to ‘move on’, that ‘the past is the past’. If we are to be told by ministers that we cannot rewrite history – quite literally ‘our occupation, our professional endeavour’, as Charlotte Riley points out – then radical history is needed more than ever. As Sally Alexander and Anna Davin wrote of the need for feminist history in the very first issue of History Workshop Journal, ‘it is only by seeking and recognizing political relevance in history that we can bring it more directly into the battle of ideas’.
The Brexiteers do not want a history that shows, as Diana Paton reminds us, that it was enslaved people who dismantled enslavement first, not white Britons working within ‘the proper channels’. They do not want a history that reveals, as Madge Dresser has, that the first demands for a London monument to the victims of enslavement (still resisted by government today) were in 1682, centuries before ‘the statues went up‘. Or that the subjects of those statues – Rhodes, Clive, imperialism itself – were disputed and opposed in ‘their own time’.
They most certainly do not want a history that, as Howard Zinn wrote, ‘would expose the limitations of governmental reform, the connections of government to wealth and privilege, the tendencies of governments toward war and xenophobia, the play of money and power behind the presumed neutrality of law’. They do not want a history that interrogates the simple national story upon which their political project relies, because history asks difficult questions. And if Brexit is about anything, it is about avoiding difficult questions.
In 1988, Stuart Hall wrote that the left had been unable to exploit the many crises of Thatcher’s Britain – strikes; financial crises; riots; the AIDS pandemic – because ‘it does not seem to have the slightest conception of what putting together a new historical project entails’. The right, by contrast, had won people over to ‘a momentous historical project, the regressive modernisation of Britain’, ‘not because they’re dupes, or stupid’, but because its story was addressed to ‘the fears, the anxieties, the lost identities, of a people’.
So too with Brexit. The right offered a frustrated country an answer (‘Take Back Control’) to a complicated world, and the left failed to offer an alternative. It failed to build solidarity that could include workers and immigrants; to build a winning coalition against austerity; to realise that answering the EU’s failures on economics and migration with ‘Lexit’ would be rejection of international cooperation in favour of right-wing nationalism. And it failed to successfully challenge the right-wing narrative of the past, both distant and recent.
In today’s age of precarity, Raphael Samuel’s call for us to think of history as an activity rather than a profession is an inescapable reality as well as an aspiration. In that first issue of History Workshop Journal – which appeared in the aftermath of the 1975 Brexit referendum – the editorial collective wrote of the need ‘to bring the boundaries of history closer to people’s lives’. Through global pandemic, climate crisis, mass displacement, gaping inequality, and rising authoritarianism, those boundaries draw ever closer.
We are ‘living through history’; but of course, we always are. The past was never uncontested, never simply ‘of its time’, never fixed. There is no golden age to return to, no story set in stone to venerate, no straightforward ‘lessons’ to guide us. Four years on, there is much more to be rewritten.