It is excellent that the recent article in History Today by my colleague in ‘Historians for Britain‘, David Abulafia, should generate such a remarkably swift and passionate set of responses. Within these, criticisms have been levelled at us that sometimes seem rather wide of the mark and do not appreciate the more detailed thoughts put out by this organisation. ‘Historians for Britain’ groups together scholars who would all readily agree that the British Islands have been inextricably connected dynastically, socially, economically and culturally with the continent, as anyone who saw the exhibitions on the Hanoverian accession in Lower Saxony during 2014 would readily attest. We also fully appreciate that every EU country has its own unique history. And yet in some key areas we believe that the UK is a country hors norme – outside the norm – as a French colleague put it to me recently.
Traditionally the inhabitants and states of these islands have been active participants in European affairs, but have kept a firm distance from most continental political blocs and formal arrangements until 1973. The one real exception in our history has been the UK’s involvement in the Concert of Europe that managed the international and internal affairs of continental Europe in the four decades after the Napoleonic Wars. And there’s the rub – because the EU is best seen as a much more complex, institutionalised and pluralistic reincarnation of the Concert of Europe, with the later Latin Monetary Union bolted on. Of course, now the EU does not seek actively to minimise representative government. Nevertheless, it still poses a worrying threat to it because there is no European public sphere, no demos, so vital to fostering accountable government. The EU also fails to be transparent or clear in its decision-making processes.
How, then, does this relate to the UK’s apparently unique history? In short, three of the great problems facing the EU – and problematic for the UK’s interests – are commercial regulation, the meshing of legal traditions, and, crucially, accountable government. The UK’s historical approaches are significantly different from those of any other continental states in at least any two of these three spheres. It is well known that English (and to a certain extent Scottish) traditions of common law with notions of binding precedent are far more entrenched than on the continent, especially since the legal codifications imposed or inspired by French and Prussian efforts of the 1790s and 1800s. This does not make it easy to align English or even Scots legal traditions with policies driven by our continental partners that require legal embodiment and, crucially, interpretation: for example, the use of trust arrangements. As to business, some European governments remain locked into aspects of a dirigiste mentality that goes back to the mid-seventeenth century, though this is of less import here. Worth noting is that François Hollande’s indignant calls for a European credit-rating agency have echoes of Louis XIV’s desire to force financial markets to accept the state’s own estimation of its solvency. Like beauty, solvency, as eighteenth-century British governments recognised, is in the eye of the beholder.
More seriously, because it affects the entire EU, is the question of accountable (rather than just democratic) government. While the history of public affairs in Scotland and England has revolved heavily around questions of accountable and responsive government, the representative institutions of continental states were much more oligarchical or even unrepresentative of the broader territorial areas that they governed. Britain’s continuity of accountable government has been strongly the case since the civil wars of the seventeenth century, though the emergence of the omni-competence of the English Parliament and the sheer bloody-mindedness of its gallus and thrawn Scottish counterpart both date back to the fifteenth if not fourteenth centuries. Our parliaments acquired much greater power to hold the executive to account, not least in the form of committees of MPs which first emerged after 1690, were entrenched in the mid-Victorian period and boosted massively from 1979. To this day, no other country in Europe – France least of all since 1958 – can rival us for parliamentary committees that put ministers and other powerful figures on the spot. The English and Scottish tradition of accountability, when manifested through political will, has been strong in other ways too: during rowdy but (despite the image Hogarth gives) normally restrained election campaigns, even when the franchise was extremely limited; and in the long-standing right of petitioning Parliament, normally taken seriously. This culture of accountability and people pressure was reinforced by – and even created symbiotically with – a burgeoning public sphere, manifested particularly in the emergence of an inquisitive free press in the 80 years after the Licensing Act lapsed in 1695.
It is this emphasis on accountability that is crucial for ‘Historians for Britain’, but it is not only about the UK. “Historians for Britain” are emphatically also historians for a better Europe. Where the absence of a European public sphere and demos diminishes accountable government, there is a powerful case – rooted in historical experience – for policy areas to be returned to national or local tiers of government, and for those fewer responsibilities at Union level being opened up to far more scrutiny. The EU speaks approvingly of subsidiarity. Yet if we are to get this then the UK has a stronger part to play than most countries in questioning “ever closer union” if that really means ever more centralisation at the Union level. The history of these islands – in which Ireland, Wales and Scotland have found themselves in bed with the English elephant – has given us an unusually strong experience of ‘asymmetric’, non-uniform governmental arrangements. In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum we are going to see an awful lot more of this. If we value better government and respect for long-standing, different legal systems, asymmetry and accountability is not something we should be afraid of, either for the internal affairs of the British Islands or for arrangements within the EU. In our steps ahead history can and should be one of our major guides.
Guy Rowlands is Reader in History at the University of St. Andrews and a public supporter of the Historians for Britain campaign. His latest book, Dangerous and Dishonest Men: the International Bankers of Louis XIV’s France, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.