EU referendum: how significant is Britain’s vote to leave? Historians debate

In a historic referendum, Britain has voted to leave the European Union. Here, four leading historians share their reaction to the verdict, and consider what the referendum means for the future of Britain...

The European Union and Union flags (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Richard Overy: “Historians of ‘decline’, sharpen your pencils”

There was a fashion some time ago for historians to write about the ‘decline of Britain’. The response was usually to argue, rightly, that decline seemed rather a premature judgment. Now with the referendum result confirmed in favour of leaving the European Union, decline will be firmly back on the agenda.

For 43 years Britain has been part of an ever-expanding European-wide experiment in which European states turned their backs on half-a-century of warfare, racism and ideological division that crippled Europe’s economy and scarred more than two generations of Europeans. Whatever the economic pros and cons, the political and philosophical arguments for collaborating in common rather than as competing nations has history on its side. What will Britain gain by recovering its ‘independence’? What traditions and values have been eroded by membership? How has a sense of ‘British’ identity been lost?

Britain for decades has been a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community, made richer than ever by close links with Europe and the free flow of Union populations. The identity that the Brexiters want is an illusion, a sentimental attachment to an idealised old-fashioned Britishness that bears no reality to the Britain of today. Instead, leaving will enfeeble the economy, promote social and racial conflict, encourage the breakup of the United Kingdom, and leave Britain as a lone ranger in a world of dangers. It will be no ‘splendid isolation’ this time.

Historians of ‘decline’, sharpen your pencils.  

Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter who specialises in the history of the Hitler and Stalin dictatorships, the Second World War and German history from c1900.


Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage MEP, reacts during the final 'We Want Our Country Back' public meeting of the EU Referendum campaign on 20 June 2016 in Gateshead. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

 

David Abulafia: “Brexit will not be seen as the earthquake some have been predicting”

This is the time to work out how the United Kingdom can perform its historic role as a nation poised between Europe and the world. There must be no sudden rush to invoke article 50 [of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows a member state to notify the EU of its withdrawal and obliges the EU to try to negotiate a ‘withdrawal agreement’ with that state], but instead we must all wait and see how the EU reacts – and which countries try to join us in a genuine common market of sovereign states. 

As a historian, trying to situate myself some time in the future, I suggest that Brexit will not be seen as the earthquake some have been predicting. Any short-term economic jolt will be nothing compared to the economic problems of the Eurozone. Brexit will be seen as part of a longer process of the disintegration of a Union that set for itself impossibly ambitious, even arrogant, aims and that moved dangerously fast in its attempt to implement them. 

Of these aims, the Euro is the most reprehensible. Above all, the rising tide of nationalism, often of a very ugly sort, is a reaction to the obstinacy and blindness of the Eurocrats. Brexit shows that there are other ways to work together and that by following them Europe has the chance to save itself from disaster.

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge and chairman of Historians for Britain.


(Photo Illustration by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

 

Andrew Roberts: “The British people have acknowledged that there is such a thing as British exceptionalism”

For all her many and multifarious contacts with the European continent throughout her history, Britain’s insular geography has meant that for good or ill she has pursued a separate historical development from the rest of the EU, and with this vote the British people have acknowledged that there is such a thing as British exceptionalism.

In the 19th century Britain already had what the rest of European liberals wanted in terms of limited monarchy, representative government, press liberty and equality before the law, partly because we had already cut off our monarch’s head just under 144 years before the French did. No foreign armies have rampaged across our lands for hundreds of years, our unwritten constitution and common law has ensured evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress since 1688; we haven’t had the coups and massacres and civil wars and mass movements of peoples that have besmirched European history so often, right up almost to the present day.

Our separate historical development owes less to inherent genius than to the English Channel and the Glorious Revolution, but it makes us different – neither better nor worse, just different – from all the other countries of the EU, and it’s excellent that the electorate has recognised that.

Andrew Roberts is visiting professor at the War Studies Department at King’s College, London and the Lehrman Institute lecturer at the New York Historical Society.


Prime Minister David Cameron joins students at the launch of the 'Brighter Future In' campaign bus at Exeter University on 7 April 2016. (Photo by Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

 

Diarmaid MacCulloch: “President Putin rubs his hands in satisfaction at our divisions”

I will not be the only historian to remember words attributed to Sir Robert Walpole when he failed to prevent the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739: “They are ringing their bells, soon they will be wringing their hands”. A dark prospect opens up: the reproaches and suspicion of fellow-Europeans across the continent, the ascendancy of an infantile English nationalism in our own kingdom, the secession of the Scots, border posts and customs between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

The European Union will be so weakened that the good influence it has had in the uphill task of encouraging working democracies in Eastern Europe will fade. President Putin rubs his hands in satisfaction at our divisions.

Why did Europe come together after the Second World War? To avoid a repetition of the mistakes of 1919, particularly the encouragement of distorted patriotisms. How much we all achieved in rebuilding a ruined continent after 1945, particularly when Britain belatedly joined the club. How much we are about to lose from all those achievements; what a waste. Premier Cameron must rue the day that he sought to solve a Tory civil war with a frivolous referendum that divided and poisoned our national life, and that has now projected these offshore European islands into a future with no guidelines.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford. His forthcoming book, All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation (Allen Lane) is to be published in July.

To read about the first UK-wide referendum, held in 1975 on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), click here.

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