Brexit for Historians

On Friday, September 9 in the Columbia University history department, British historians Susan Pedersen and Sam Wetherell led a conversation about Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Intended as what Wetherell referred to as an “air-clearing” for historians who still had thoughts from the summer to process, the event was attended by a range of scholars in different fields. About half the room had some connection to Britain, either through nationality or research field, but others spoke from their perspective as continental Europeans or Europeanists, as political scientists, or from other perspectives. After a brief introduction from Pedersen to the history of Britain’s relationship to the EU and the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EEC, and a recap from Wetherell of events since June 23, the discussion ranged widely. Jake Purcell and Emily Rutherford felt that they had no choice but to take stock of things for the blog, and a conversation between them follows.

ER: I was looking back over my notes from the conversation, and I was surprised to realize that Susan kicked the whole thing off with some serious national British history to give some political-historical context for this summer’s referendum, because the conversation so quickly veered away from that approach! By the end, participants had raised so many questions about whether historians might best understand Brexit from a historical perspective, from a national British as opposed to a European perspective, and what kinds of lenses on British history (class? race? empire? culture? economics? politics?) might be appropriate to bring to bear. An ancient historian made the most eloquent defense of Leave voters I’ve heard thus far, and in the process invoked ancient notions of Europe and their modern reception. And of course, you’re a medievalist!

I’m a modern British historian who spent the whole summer in the UK, and who understood Brexit to be “really” about this sovereignty question that came up in the discussion, and about issues of national politics, economics, culture, the welfare state, etc. So far, given that markets seem to have stabilized for the time being, the fallout mostly seems to have taken place in the context of the parliamentary system and the national political culture that surrounds it. So I was really struck that this wasn’t actually the focus of Friday’s discussion. What did you think about how this group’s identities as historians factored into the fact that we were having this conversation? Other people present made claims for what an ancient historian or an early modernist could bring to the understanding of this political issue, but what do you think about that from your perspective as someone who isn’t a modern British historian?

JP: I’ll probably circle back to the non-British, non-modernist thing later, but two elements of the discussion struck me as particularly historianly. The first was Sam’s rather plaintive insistence that we were all there to try to get a handle on “what had happened,” and the second was Susan’s rather dense introduction to campaigns for and against British participation in a European economic system throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to removing some of the mysticism of the Brexit vote by giving it a clear context, Susan’s comments demonstrated that there were no particularly stances that different parties had to take, or lines of argument that necessarily fell to for or against. The idea that Labour had, in previous votes, been opposed to participating in EEC because it was a vote for capitalism, or that a relatively higher portion of, for example, young people voted to leave in 1975. Contingency! The discussion immediately became a project not just to figure out what arguments worked or didn’t, but why lines of reasoning were deployed or had resonance at this particular moment.

Like you say, the conversation wove through an extraordinary number of topics (I have five pages of legal pad notes, taken in a desperate attempt to keep the different strands clumped together), but do you think it’s safe to say that there was some consensus? Sam suggested that there were two dominant ways of reading the Brexit vote, one about poverty, austerity, isolationism, and the service economy, the other about a nationalist revolt against a lost idea of Britishness, and that the first of these was insufficient in explanatory power, that they had to be moved together. This assessment seemed to agree with Susan’s conclusion, that this moment we’re in is really a culture-emphasizing backlash against a politics that is only about economics. Which reminds me of another, not very historian-like aspect of the discussion, which was a genuine willingness to predict. What about this topic do you think made us willing to get over that particular aversion? Do you think the analyses that emerged gave us the right tools for that project?

ER: Mmm, I see what you’re saying about how historical reasoning crept into the conversation even when it wasn’t explicitly a conversation about how to historicize. Susan was also working in part from a recent book about Britain’s twentieth-century relationship to Europe, Continental Drift, written by a former US diplomat: so from the outset the conversation was framed as one in which history and other social-scientific methodologies for understanding contemporary politics have to work together. It reminds me of how Queen Mary University London’s Mile End Institute held a forum the morning after the referendum, featuring scholars from disciplines from public policy to law to economics, and also including a historian, Robert Saunders, whose blog has provided some of the most measured analysis of political events as they developed this summer. So I guess historians can predict, particularly if they are also drawing on other methodologies, but I’m not sure that it’s something we are innately qualified to do—particularly if we don’t work with the kind of numbers that allow a scholar to project trends in changing demographics, polling data, etc.

As to cultural versus economic arguments: it strikes me that the most interesting things the audience contributed to the discussion were cultural. I was particularly convinced by a few different speakers: one who discussed the internal workings of politics and whether it’s a “game”; another who carefully described a notion of national sovereignty (“take back control”) that can bridge class divides and appeal to people from very different groups for different reasons; and a third who asked about the working-out of loss of empire. I am not sure if all those things amount to one consensus, but they do certainly amount to one emphasis. But maybe that’s because I’m a historian of modern British elite institutions and culture myself! When I lived in Britain I became very susceptible to seeing the origins of the culture of the elite institutions that I was inhabiting in the late nineteenth century that I study; and to slipping back and forth between how a phenomenon like male homosociality worked in the late-nineteenth-century context and in the present day, the one illuminating the other. I still think some of that is true, though I’m not sure it’s the most responsible methodology when it comes to writing history. But maybe that tendency to collapse time, simultaneously inhabiting a mental universe bounded by your research and the normal outside world, is a cast of mind that historians can offer discussions like this one. I started studying Britain shortly after the 2010 general election which returned the Conservatives to power, and since then my research has helped me to understand, and to explain to other Americans, issues from the government’s education policy, to why Guardian headlines are so often ridiculous, to how Boris Johnson is the culmination of 300 years of history of elite education and its relationship to the British state (my current obsession).

But I remain struck by how so many people at the event kept pulling us out of the narrowly British, or even English, context: invoking the view from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, or from a time before Great Britain. Brexit seems so irrevocably British to me, entwined with the specific context Susan and Sam began with and (I would argue) with a slightly more distant British past that accounts for those cultural phenomena and their effects on voter behavior. But is it possible that modern British history is actually the wrong framework through which to view what seems to me a peculiarly modern British event? Is there anything particularly British about Brexit at all? (This NYRB piece which links Brexit to the upcoming US election seems to think not.) Is it chauvinist to argue that there is? Why, as so many commenters pointed out, should we care about Britain at all?

JP: Yes, you’re right that it was more an agreement about what elements were critical as opposed to what the exact configuration was. Though, who knows if that’s just because of a propensity for institutional and cultural explanations among the people in that room! I like the idea that having a second frame of reference constantly in mind is part of the historian’s contribution; something like built-in “perspective.”

Trying to get out of the British-centric focus was definitely a theme! I think several people in the room would agree that “wrong” is exactly the word for using modern British history as the sole framework, not in sense of “incorrect,” but in the sense of “not quite ethical.” There seemed to be real frustrations that neither campaign discussed the effect that leaving might have on the EU, and the Remain campaign’s lack of critique somehow seemed to tie it even more closely to an all-powerful austerity bloc, at least from the perspective of some people in Southern Europe. Aside from that, even Susan did not quite think that historical context provided all of the answers. When someone asked about old colonial tensions playing out in the Irish vote, Susan pushed back against the specter of “Little England” as an explanatory element, instead pointing to demographic shifts and the massive expansion of higher education. At the same time, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying to pretend that all populism is the same, or achieves power in the same way, especially if one of the participants whom you mentioned is right and the political game happens at the institutional level, rather than at the national or European level. For all the recent interest in transnational history, it is odd to me that we never quite developed a rhetoric for talking about what similarities in, for example, anti-immigrant politics might mean. (In addition to immigration, I can’t help but feel that the caricature of Brussels as a tiny, antidemocratic bureaucracy controlling the lives of European citizens from its paperwork-lined halls corresponds to a repudiation of Administrative Law in some corners in the U.S.)

I also think that maybe there was a scale problem in the conversation. Yes, you’re probably right that modern British history is exactly the lens that will allow us to explain in important ways the mechanics of the Brexit campaign and vote, in part because British politics has a particular flavor, but the significance—why we ought to care about Britain at all—resides in part at the level of Europe. The Council for European Studies’ major conference this year is on the themes of “sustainability and transformation,” and Brexit is a key component; it is clearly understood to have transformative potential, whatever the current calm. We need lots of national and transnational histories, not just British ones, to figure out what the impact might be.

I find myself returning again and again to the lone, brave, self-professed Leave voter. He suggested that one might support Leave because the EU immigration system disadvantages people particularly from Europe or Africa, and that the idea of a bounded “Europe” remained too closely related to constructions of race and scientific racism for his comfort. I honestly cannot say whether or not this is true, but I’m way more interested in the fact that these lines of reasoning are exactly the same criticisms that usually get leveled against nationalism and the nineteenth-century construction of the state. Maybe historians (especially premodernists, I think) can help to de-naturalize the presence of particular institutions or relationships between ideologies and political positions.

ER: I can’t argue with that!

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