Given its relevance to communities across the continent, and its implications for future generations, one might reasonably expect the forthcoming EU membership referendum to prompt an informed and balanced public debate. Yet there is little evidence of such a debate taking place in the public media: discussions on the issue are often highly emotive and demagogic and draw on the fears and, of course, the ignorance of potential voters. Experts in the field and other intellectuals are not, unfortunately, so willing to contribute. The agenda is then, at times, set up by an often better organized anti-EU camp.
A bizarre, but noteworthy, example is the output of the self-nominated Historians for Britain group, which features a handful of Oxbridge professors who nonetheless describe themselves as being composed of ‘Dozens of … leading historians’ who ‘are not scared to fight to achieve’ the ‘return of powers from the EU’. They received some media coverage last year when they started challenging what they perceive as the ‘myth’ of European democracy while promoting an historical exceptionalism for Great Britain. They struck again early in the new year. In a letter published in the Telegraph on 16 January, they essentially attempted to defend the ‘out’ campaign by citing the scare tactics of pro-EU propaganda. But what does it mean to be so frightened?
According to the signatories of the letter, it is the argument that the EU secured peace in Europe is ‘historically illiterate’ and ‘groundless’. For them, NATO was the main guarantor of peace, and they thus seek to challenge the European narrative of a pro-peace European integration. To this end, Historians for Britain have published an online pamphlet entitled, Peace-makers or credit takers? The EU and peace in Europe. Strangely, and despite their claim that ‘existing groups … do not have our academic focus’, almost none of their experts works on modern Europe or the history of EU integration (expertise in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Napoleon, and North East England is much more apparent), and two out of three of the signatories claiming such research interests have basically no noticeable peer-reviewed academic publications in the field.
Yet as one of the volume contributors, Dr Lee Rotherham, puts it, ‘The concept of the EU bringing peace to ‘Europe’ is by its very terminology a nonsense’. Setting aside the fact that their letter contains some unclear historical references to the Treaty of Rome (which was actually preceded by the Schuman Declaration in 1950 and the Treaty of Paris in 1951) as a foundational act of the integration of some Europe’s lands, their little volume also takes quite a narrow, if not peculiar, understanding of the concept of ‘peace’. Although, the NATO alliance surely had a fundamental role, by exclusively highlighting its importance, one provides a narrowly military reading of peaceful relations among states. This also shows a bizarre portrayal of the conditions that prevailed in Europe after 1945 and what happened at least from 1914 to the outbreak of the Second World War. Lasting peace was and is, in fact, also made and sustained by social, political, cultural, and economic collaboration and exchanges.
In this sense, NATO provided only a very limited form of belonging. Nationalist impulses were also curtailed through integration – economic nationalism was discouraged by trade agreements from the market for steel and coal to the common market, political nationalism through inter-state power sharing and decision-making, and, importantly, social nationalism was countered by stressing similarities, sharing educational standards, and allowing the free movement of workers. This process slowly undermined the sense of cultural and ethnic superiority, along with the resentments among nations, which were a legacy of the previous years. This is what the (unfinished) process of the European integration has attempted to do. Counter-arguments related to the wars outside the EU borders and the tensions created by the Eurozone downturn and following austerity, are really another business.
Given this, and accepting their lack of expertise on postwar Europe, one might wonder why Historians for Britain, a supposedly independent and non-partisan group that is so apparently interested in the wellbeing of the British public, do not start campaigning for change within their own educational system. The Historical Association is, for example, working to highlight the very limited presence of ethnic minorities in the sector, and to promote the role history, in schools and universities and amongst the wider public, has to offer critical perspectives on the modern world. The Council for the Defence of British Universities is also defending academic institutions and the production of culture from an increasingly evident process of marketization and customerisation. Similarly, as Stefan Collini suggests (see the recent LRB piece, ‘Who are the spongers now? Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’), reforms promoted by governments do not necessarily improve higher education, including the recent proposals for a means of teaching assessment, because the recent Green Paper is not really aware of ‘what it means by ‘teaching quality”’.
The reason for their interest in dismantling the EU is clear enough, and it is political. They are inextricably linked to the Eurosceptic think tank ‘Business for Britain’. Their ambition is thus not merely to promote informed debate on EU membership and the referendum. Matthew Elliott, founder of Business for Britain, writes in the preface of their Peace-makers or credit takers?. ‘A vote to leave the out-of-date, undemocratic institutions of the EU is not a vote against our closest friends and neighbours’. Lee Rotherham also clearly has some involvement with Better Off Out and with the Campaign for an Independent Britain. This latter promotes ‘the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union’. Another contributor to the pamphlet, Oliver Lewis, is the Special Projects Director at Vote Leave and works for Business for Britain.
All of this reveals a great deal about the allegedly “non-political” motivations of Historians for Britain, which might be instead be classified alongside other anti-EU organisations. This being the case, although they surely represent a position in the ongoing debate, they are far from being the voice of the historical discipline and of academic culture at large.