Historians for Britain: Whig History and Political Inertia by Joel Barnes

One of the key strategies in responding to claims of national exceptionalism is to relativise them, to point out that all nations are unified in making such claims for themselves. This has, rightly, been a common response to David Abulafia’s attempt to leverage a narrative of British historical exceptionalism in service of the eurosceptic cause. Yet there is something peculiarly English (yes, English, not British) about the particular form that Abulafia’s claims have taken. Other nations believe in their own specialness because they reckon themselves to be the freest, the most powerful, the most cultured, the fairest and most democratic, the most passionate and poetic-minded, or because they are God’s chosen people. Britain’s special preserve is its history: its supposedly unbroken line of harmonious political continuity.

This belief – of which Historians for Britain is the latest group of believers – has itself been a significant political force throughout the last four centuries of English and then British political history. Herbert Butterfield recognised as much in his Englishman and His History (1944), in which he contrasted French liberty, which ‘springs from a revolt against history and tradition’, with its English counterpart:

The Contrast 1792 / Which Is Best
Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, ‘The Contrast 1792 / Which Is Best’, showing a contrast of “British Liberty” vs. “French Liberty”. Original © Trustees of the British Museum.

... in England we made peace with [the tyrannies of] our middle ages by misconstruing them; and, therefore, we may say that ‘wrong’ history was one of our assets. The Whig interpretation …, whatever it may have done to our history, … had a wonderful effect on English politics. For this reason England did not need a revolution of 1789 to save her from the despotism of the past. (p. 7)

What Butterfield famously called the Whig interpretation of history was borne out of the seventeenth-century idea of the ‘ancient constitution’. This in turn was a product of the common law, one of the traditions that Abulafia identifies as one of Britain’s – really England’s – distinctive features. Under the common law, legal and political rights and liberties were based not on any unified legal code, but on readings of precedent. As ancient constitutionalism dissolved in the nineteenth century under pressures of industrialisation and democratisation, it was transformed, in a Burkean move, into the Whig interpretation of history. This involved surrendering the notion of precedent as establishing rights, while maintaining and even enhancing the emphasis upon political continuity. Whig historiography in turn gave way to modern specialised historical scholarship. Its largest legacy, as Butterfield hinted, may be political rather than historiographical. The history profession’s overwhelmingly critical response to Abulafia’s article highlights the extent to which its mainstream has abandoned such an exaggerated sense of continuity, but many of Britain’s politicians still have enough faith in the power of  tradition to do without a written constitution.

Writing against the upheavals of the Second World War, Butterfield saw much to admire in Britain’s constitutional traditions, whatever the consequences for historiographical practice. But the inertia that comes from overmuch faith in the prescriptive power of the past can be dangerous in its own right. The aims of Historians for Britain are avowedly presentist. As such it is worth considering the contemporary political moment to which Abulafia’s Whig narrative speaks. Two problems loom large. One is the terms of the union. The other is an increasingly dysfunctional electoral system that, though theoretically democratic, in practice – through a variety of obstacles from the administrative to the structural, from the holding of elections on a Thursday to the use of first-past-the-post and single-member constituencies – effectively disenfranchises large sections of the population. Both the union and the electoral system are now in need of major structural reform for which there is no obvious (domestic) precedent. Neither will be resolved by an excessive traditionalism that furnishes justifications for inaction.

The Historians for Britain group’s concerns are with the European Union, not domestic political arrangements, but on issues such as these, much may be gained by becoming more European, not less. Continental nations, whose relationships to their histories have been more about national self-definition than political prescription, have been more adept at adjusting their institutions to the conflicting demands of democracy. Turnout at the recent UK general election, while uneven, was just 66.1% of registered voters. Turnout hasn’t exceeded 70% since 1997; at the previous three general elections it was 59.1%, 61.4% and 65.3% respectively. While not extraordinary in wider European context, this pattern is certainly on the lower end of what may be expected at major elections in a large western European nation. While political disengagement is a complex problem affecting democracies worldwide, one of the factors that has led it to bite especially hard in the UK is undoubtedly electors’ awareness that, in many cases, their vote simply doesn’t matter. This was one of the findings of a recent House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report on voter engagement. The Committee’s blunt assessment that ‘Democracy in the UK is working less well than it used to’ is difficult to ignore. Such electoral dysfunction is in many way a direct product of the very Whig history that Historians for Britain champions: it is no accident that England pioneered representative institutions but then lagged behind much of Europe in converting these into democratic ones. It is precisely the reverence for the antiquity of Britain’s institutions that has consistently militated against their reform.

The necessary reform of British electoral processes towards some form of proportional and/or preferential system will be actively resisted by those who see tradition as prescriptive. Reform will be derided as un-English, as a pollution of Britain’s long-standing island purity by hot-headed European ideas. In the same way the necessary renegotiation of the terms of the union between Scotland and England –­ necessary if Scotland is not ultimately to secede – will be resisted on the grounds that the terms of 1707 have stood ‘the test of time’ for three hundred years.

Britain’s history is indeed unique, though not quite in the way that Historians for Britain would have it: not in the objective fact of happy and peaceable political continuity, but in the persistence of the subjective belief in it. That belief has itself shaped British political history, as it continues to shape British politics today. There is much to be said, however, for embracing a little European willingness to make breaks with the past where necessary. That will not be achieved by retreating behind the cordon sanitaire of the Channel, either intellectually or politically.

Joel Barnes is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, researching the impact of ancient constitutionalist thought upon nineteenth-century British popular and parliamentary politics

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