Historians believe Britain's distinct heritage plays a large role in EU renegotiation plans

11 min read

26 February 2015

In 2013 David Cameron suggested that “there is not, in my view, a single European demos”. But according to professor Jonathan Clark, “the feasibility of the UK's integration into the EU is determined more by history than by economics”. And history seems to be on Cameron's side.

The historical debate over Britain’s EU membership is in dire straits.

“Talk to the historians who cover this period and you will soon hear about various myths, such as the well-known and fatuous assertion that the EU is solely responsible for peace in Europe, or the outright scaremongering about the economic consequences of securing a looser, freer relationship between Britain and the EU,” said Matthew Elliot, CEO of Business for Britain.

“Political leaders on the continent, and even influential figures in Britain, frequently defend these myths, preventing academics from having a rigorous, thorough discussion about the pros and cons of EU membership.”

And it is clear that one of the most debated claims is that there is a single European demos.

“The view, held by some within the EU’s institutions is that Europeans either share a common political and social identity or that there is a need to reforge an identity that hasn’t existed since the end of the Roman Empire,” explained Elliot.

But in a recent collection of essays, historians show that despite Britain’s history and future being entangled with that of Europe’s, we have always retained our own distinct identity.

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David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge university and papathomas professorial fellow of Gonville and Caius college, said: “Historians for Britain believe that the historical perspective is vitally important if we are going to make sense whether renegotiation of Britain’s place in the EU is to achieve valuable results for the UK.

“Nigel Saul’s demonstration that the political culture of the UK, and particularly of England, has roots stretching back deep into the Middle Ages acts as a reminder that a fundamental difference between Britain and Europe is the sheer continuity in British institutions: Parliament, the legal system, the universities, not of course forgetting the crown itself, are all ancient institutions that have survived with few or no breaks. There is nothing quite like this anywhere else in Europe.”

At a deeper level there is a “more fundamental difficulty” in choosing the outcome of the EU referendum, and that is Britain’s resistance to the EU’s aim of ‘ever closer union’.

According to Saul, professor of Medieval history at the Royal Holloway: “There is no historical explanation for Britain’s troubled relationship with the European Union being based on the sloppy belief that the peoples of Britain are culturally different from those of the European mainland and have little in common with the people of France, Germany or elsewhere; this little-Englander approach simply will not convince.” 

Instead, it is of his belief that Britain’s long attachment to her historic identity “makes her immediately recoil from measures which lead to absorption in a larger European formation. 

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“The modern English state is almost without parallel in the history of European political development in being able to trace its institutional origins back over a thousand years to the early Middle Ages,” he said. “In its present form, the English polity is essentially a creation of the late 800s and 900s, that period which is so important in European history, when the Viking marauders began launching their assaults on the European mainland, raiding, pillaging and in many areas eventually settling, and when the history of England embarked on a different course from that of the continent.

“On the continent, however, over the same period the situation could hardly have been more different.”

Robert Tombs, professor of French history at Cambridge University and a fellow of
St John’s College, insists that Italy and Germany are creations of the 19th century, and “the vigorous attempts that were made to create a national identity had disastrous consequences in both countries. France was permanently transformed by the revolution of 1789, and subsequent political turmoil.”

Read more about Parliament’s roots…

Saul continued: “The second point which needs to be made relates to the close connection between English national identity and the history of one state institution in particular, namely the king’s High Court of Parliament. It is the role of Parliament in giving legislative expression to the rights of the individual against the state, which takes us to the heart of the debate about how we define and safeguard the rights and liberties we cherish today.”

He suggested that Parliament “as the principal forum in which king and subjects treated of the common business of the realm” can trace its roots back to the Norman period.

“England, despite giving birth to what was effectively Europe’s first basic law, has actually found that it could manage perfectly well without such a law. It has achieved the aim of entrenching the rights of the individual through the assertion of parliamentary sovereignty, and not by resort to a written constitution. That Britain has managed without such a constitution is a mark of the seamlessness and the continuity of her political development.

“It is these divergences in political development between the countries on opposite sides of the Channel which go a long way to explaining both the mutual suspicion on the two sides and the deep-seated irreconcilability of views on what is to be achieved and how. One tradition, the European, looks to the uniformity which can be attained through the strict enforcement of written codifi cations; the other looks to evolution through the organic growth of institutions. The match between the two traditions will always be an awkward one.”

Edward Hicks of St Anne’s College explained that if we add to the above cocktail Britain’s pioneering role in the Industrial Revolution we have an even greater sense of the divergence between Britain and its European neighbours in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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This is why Abulafia is adamant that “in all these countries past history is important; but in Britain the connection with the past is particularly intimate and durable: not for nothing do tourists revel in the traditions of royal London.

“How we perceive continents is determined by cultural assumptions and not simply by geography. In reality all the major Mediterranean islands have at some time been ruled from Asia or Africa, even though all are now part of larger European states apart from Cyprus (obviously a special political problem) and Malta, whose Catholic Europeanness is compromised by the fact that its inhabitants speak a dialect of Maghribi Arabic. Is Armenia more European than Azerbaijan? 

“Both perform in the Eurovision Song Contest – as good a test as any of Europeanness, but one that brings in Israel as well; in any event, the voting patterns in the contest betray regional loyalties that hardly suggest a common sense of Europeanness exists, a Scandinavians or Slavs vote for one another even when their neighbours have delivered performances of unprecedented ghastliness.”

It is time to admit that a sense of ‘Europeanness’ cannot be traced far back in time.

He said: “Europe, it has to be concluded, is not one myth but many myths: myths rooted in an idealisation of the classical past, in fantasies about figures such as Charlemagne, in shifting ideas about what Europe is and where its centre of gravity lies. Assuming, along with Bolaffi and Simms, that the centre of gravity lies in Germany, or assuming that it lies at the EU headquarters in Brussels, we are left with an interesting conundrum. 

“No one suggests that the centre of gravity lies in the UK. England or Britain have, as these essays reveal, participated intensively in the history of the European continent – even, for much of the Middle Ages, ruled large parts of France – but Britain has also developed its own distinctive political culture, benefiting in significant measure from its island setting. This has not created insularity; ‘Fog in Channel, Continent Isolated’ is a misrepresentation of Britain’s relationship with Europe.” 

Essentially, Britain’s past has given the country a distinctive character that needs to be recognised by the EU. 

“The offer in the European supermarket should not be ‘one size fits all’.”