Historians' Watch

Who Cares What Historians Say?

Much substantive criticism has been leveled at the spectacularly blinkered and unimaginative ‘Island story’ that the Historians for Britain (HfB) group http://historiansforbritain.org/ have presented in their bid to steer the British public in a stiffly Eurosceptic direction. Less commented on is their particular way of evoking the historian’s authority in public life. This is worth unpicking not only because it has implications for how to respond to HfB, but also because it has the potential to question the grounds on which historians contribute to wider political debates.

Der arme Poet, Carl Spitzweg, 1837
Der arme Poet, Carl Spitzweg, 1837

HfB’s intervention boils down to an interesting paradox. After reading their manifesto one wonders what they are actually telling the Great British public that the Great British public does not already believe about their nation’s history. The HfB master narrative may add a little detail here or there – the name of a king or earl perhaps, a historical date, or a military battle won – but it contains little that the average inhabitant of this country would find surprising or counter-intuitive. After all, with its myth of separateness and unbroken tradition, and its moral self-righteousness this is precisely the kind of history that has been a staple ingredient of public culture for a century or more. Any talk that this history may somehow be endangered in today’s Britain is about as convincing as the tabloid’s lament that nobody dares to talk about immigration when, in fact, everyone is talking about little else.

So why then does it take a historian – usually a university-trained specialist – to tell the public what the public already knows? Possession of greater knowledge or expertise can be discounted, as this Island Story for Britain has not been shaped to any great extent by the specialist research that the members of the collective engage in – and where they claim it has, one may wonder what kind of path-breaking research it is that simply adds more detail, or more publicist’s flourish to a larger argument that has remained the same for so long.

The historian is needed here for something else – to lend an assumed rather than proven academic authority to commonsense ideology. The Great British public are reassured that they need not revisit or question their most commonly held assumptions about history and national identity because ‘proper’ and famous historians hold them, too. Meanwhile, by doffing their hats to what they surely recognize as the prevailing common sense, these same historians earn the permission to display their cultural capital without being accused of out-of-touch elitism.

This reciprocal exchange of authority has the capacity to undermine the voice of real specialist experts in the public debate over the UK’s EU membership. Rather than the defence of a particular version of history, which by all accounts needs little defending as far as the wider public is concerned, this may well be HfB’s real purpose. History’s character as not-quite-art and not-quite-science comes in especially useful here. Everything falls under history’s all-embracing remit while historians can voice opinions with far less scrutiny than other experts. After all, difference of opinion is usually just a matter of interpretation with few robust rules of what constitutes truth or falsehood.

In consequence, historians can cash in on the ability to speak with full academic authority, while also largely escaping the public’s instinctive distrust of esoteric knowledge and of the power it bestows on its holder. The economist, constitutional lawyer, political scientist or sociologist – in short the very experts that should have first claim to have something substantial to say about the UK’s EU membership – have to lay out difficult and complex arguments that are often beyond the lay person’s grasp. As historians, HfB can simply invite the public to run with their gut instincts.

This poses a formidable trap for those historians who wish to counter HfB’s ideology by invoking their own superior expertise. Is it really wise to talk about the power of ‘historical fact’ – of pointing out what ‘really happened’ – to undermine HfB’s claims, as many otherwise excellent critiques of the ‘Island Story’ have done? Even historians who are intellectually well aware of the limitations of historical ‘truth’ are surprisingly keen to deploy just such a notion of ‘truth’ when combating their critics. This may be the right strategy in certain settings – for instance, undergraduate teaching – but is bound to fail when it comes to the battle for public opinion. Criticism at this level is like water down a duck’s back as far as HfB is concerned.

Pointing out faulty interpretations or gaping holes in the narrative is not going to silence a historian who holds a professorship at Cambridge and/or appears on TV on a regular basis. In the public eye somebody of that distinction cannot be entirely wrong, and what looks like scholarly debate to the protagonists is easily perceived as politically motivated bickering from further away. Meanwhile, critics who propose more challenging ideas about history than their opponents are putting themselves in danger of coming across as arrogant intellectuals out to deprive common people of the comforts of their common sense. In short, banging on about our authority by virtue of superior knowledge in an exchange with an opponent like the HfB could all too easily lead to building up their authority instead.

This does not mean that historians have to be silent in the debate about EU membership. But instead of concentrating too much on piecing together a rival master narrative that shows how much Britain’s history was in fact embedded in the wider history of Europe, it may be more fruitful to pose some more fundamental questions about the role of history in public life. Would it not be better if this country’s citizens actually faced the question over the UK’s EU membership by openly weighing up different possibilities for the future rather than to take questionable lessons from the past? Make their choice without having to consider what this or that historical grand narrative is allegedly telling them Britain’s ‘natural’ relationship with Europe should be? Without having to believe that historians somehow hold the golden key to how the world works?

Nobody is better placed than professional historians to point out that there is, in fact, no ‘natural’ in the world, that all history is an act of story-telling with hindsight and for that reason rarely binding, and, above all, that all future is in principle radically open. At the risk of taking ourselves down a peg or two, the most important task for the public historian at this moment may well be to explain why the last thing the country needs for a decision over EU membership is in fact more advice from historians.

Here are links for further discussion on Historians for Britain:



Markus Daechsel is senior lecturer in South Asian history at Royal Holloway, University of London


    1. Like this piece. Thinking along similar lines, obviously (and I did submit my piece a good four days before it came out btw.)

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