Onni Gust

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).


10250336_10152243479957237_5104384430648804659_nOnni Gust is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nottingham where they research and teach on the cultural history of the British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


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