History or political propaganda?

Quite a stir has been caused in the Internet by an article written by David Abulafia and published in History Today entitled Britain: apart from or a part of Europe, which to put it quite simply argues for a British exit from the EU based on the concept that Britain has a unique history that separates it from its European neighbours. Possibly the worst part of this blatant piece of political propaganda, masquerading as history, is that it is presented as a sort of manifesto for a group of historians calling themselves Historians for Britain, thereby implicitly implying that they represent the British community of historians. As a convinced European who has lived more than half his life in Germany, I hardly need to say that they don’t represent this British historian.

The last couple of days has seen some informed criticisms of this piece by Charles West at Sheffield University’s History Matters, England: Apart From or a Part of Europe? An Early Medieval Perspective, by Fiona Whelan and Kieran Hazzard at The History Vault, Historians for Britain: The Betrayal of History and Historical Practice, and by Neil Gregor at The Huffington Post, Historians, Britain and Europe. Chiming in on behalf of the historians of science my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has written an excellent piece on her H-Word Blog at The Guardian, Beware Eurosceptic versions of history and science.


16 May: Sean Lang at The Conversation, There is no dastardly EU plot to hijack the history curriculum

17 May: Historian for History Statement May 2015

18 May: A very large number of historians at History Today: Historians Isolated, Fog in Channel

All of these save me the trouble of writing something myself, but in her article Becky reminded me that Brian Cox had written an essay for the BBC a couple of years ago claiming the same sort of exceptionalism for the history of British science entitled, The Wonder of British Science. At the time I wrote a demolition of Cox’s arguments, Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the science, which I humbly offer up as my contribution to the current debate.


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17 responses to “History or political propaganda?

  1. You might expect a hair more modesty from England, which is officially ruled by a German family and whose greatest philosopher was an Austrian, especially now that the Mother of Parliaments is very likely to become a second rump as the Scots and the Welsh take French leave.

    Snark aside, it seems extraordinarily unwise for the English to want to separate themselves from Europe. Even when Britain had an empire that mattered, ignoring the continent didn’t pay—that’s a good part of the reason that America was lost—but England by itself is going to be quite irrelevant in a world politics dominated by the U.S., the E.U., China, India, and Russia. At best, the British are going to have to hang on to the special relationship with both hands. Seems to me that it makes more sense to be an important and influential part of Europe than a dependency taken for granted by the Americans, but what do I know?

    I do think you can make a case for a British style of pursuing science, at least if you focus on particular eras and fields of inquiry, though a serious investigation of national intellectual styles is a quite a different operation than tub thumping. I don’t know if anybody has done the same kind of job for 19th or 20th Century Britain that Christa Jungnickel and Russel McCormmach did for theoretical physics in Germany in their Intellectual Mastery of Nature: Theoretical Physics from Ohm to EInstein.

  2. The downside to being an influential part of Europe is that Europe then becomes an influential part of Britain.

  3. Bravo for Thony and Becky. My hero, Emil du Bois-Reymond, scorned the idea of writing a history of German physics in response to the nationalist assertions of Thomson and Tait’s “Treatise of Natural Philosophy;” in fact, claims of relative superiority in science prompted him to compose one of the very first studies of the history of nationalism. All peoples, du Bois-Reymond wrote in his 1878 essay “On National Feeling,” possess “the virtues of their defects and the defects of their virtues.”

    That being said, du Bois-Reymond aimed specific criticisms at his colleagues. He mocked English and French scholars for their ignorance of foreign cultures, and he mocked German scholars for their awful style of exposition. He considered English and French physiology to be antiquated, but by the same token he couldn’t understand why most of his countrymen ignored the brilliance of Darwin.

    So there’s really nothing new in scientific bigotry. The problem, then and now, is that it’s hard to master science, it’s harder to master science in a foreign language, and it’s hardest of all to master one’s feelings of national bias. But none of that should dissuade us from trying to tease out the strengths and weaknesses of national traditions, our own included. That can only be done comparatively and dispassionately through study and experience. Unfortunately, Thony, most people don’t have the urge to live abroad. I’ve never really understood why.

    • Here is Emil du Bois-Reymond’s discussion of Tait, quoted by his friend John Tyndall in the introduction to a new edition of his “Fragments of Science.” Du Bois-Reymond is the “learned Secretary” of the Prussian Academy of Sciences referred to below:

      “The author of the ‘Lectures’ is perhaps sufficiently well acquainted with the history on which he professes to throw light, and on the later aspects of which he passes so rude a judgement. He thus exposes himself to the suspicion, which, unhappily, is not weakened by his other writings, that the fiery Celtic blood of his country has so acted on his mind as to convert him into a scientific Chauvin. Scientific chauvinism,” adds the learned Secretary, “from which German investigators have hitherto kept free, is more detestable than political chauvinism, inasmuch as from men of science, more than from politically excited masses, the tone and manners of civilised society are to be desired.”

  4. Jeb

    David Starky was deploying a not dissimilar argument on the differences between English identity and Scottish identity on News night at the start of the week.

    His argument boiled down to the opinion that English identity was ‘real’ and linked to the exceptional development of the English state, which allows England to have a proper sense of itself (a quite and reserved nationalism apparently). A sense of being Scottish on the other hand is a fictive concept based on romance according to Starky.

    He allows England to have an identity that develops situationaly as part of a historical processes but appears to deny the existence of historical processes to groups he would seem to want to identify as outside of this exceptionally pleasing history.

    Going to be a sea of historical nonsense on identity over the coming months I suspect from all political persuasions.

  5. guthrie

    What there was under Gove was a hijacking of the curriculum to teach the good old dull stuff in a dull way, i.e. lists of kings.

  6. guthrie

    I won’t link to their website, but their information bits says, about HIstorians for Britain:
    “Historians for Britain is led by its Chairman, Professor David Abulafia, and a strong Board of successful historians, including: Dr Sheila Lawlor, Dr Andrew Roberts, Dr David Starkey and Professor Brian Young. ”

    In one sense this is no different from the “500 small businesses think we’re great” sort of stuff seen before the election.
    Perhaps it indicates how open the culture wars have become, or else that politics is part of history, something the establishment would like us all to not notice.

  7. Jeb

    Starkey I suspect (never read the work of this professional media troll for hire) wont be doing history here.

    The usual trick is to present a rather static, non-dynamic version of kingship, manufacturing an admirable feature that can be found at all times and places.

    It’s a narrative that has to deny historical processes in order to paint a static feature in the historical landscape that is ever present.

    Be presented as some form of quite, unspoken contract or silent bond, given the contemporary taste for presenting quietness as the essential core of English identity by people who like to shout about such things.

  8. Baerista

    I don’t have a political bone to pick in this fight, so I may be less critical of Abulafia et al. than some of the bloggers linked here. It’s just that their points look so spectacularly moot if you consider things from a comparative perspective. Sure, there are many unique things about British history, which set it apart from the rest of Europe. But that same narrative can be told – and is being told – in a lot of other countries. German historiography has had its “Sonderweg” debate, while some even more obvious cases would be the histories and cultures of Scandinavia, the Balkans, the Baltic states, and the Iberian peninsula. In fact, when you look at intellectual history over the last 1500 years, the Iberian kingdoms look *far* more isolated from the rest of Europe than Britain does. The Pyrenees are just as much a geographic barrier as the English Channel is. But when was the last time anybody claimed Spain and Portugal aren’t part of Europe? If you look at 20th century narrative constructions of “Europe”, the one country that is consistently being placed at the heart of the story and used as the yardstick for what is quintessentially European is France (it’s also the country most US Americans stereotypically associate with Europe, btw) Every other country can measure its “Europeanness” by comparing itself to France. Britain has certainly done so in the past. But that doesn’t mean a lot.

  9. Ian H Spedding

    Even while we basked in our (relatively brief) tenure as an Imperial superpower the writing was always on the wall that it was not going to last. The power of the Royal Navy was never going to be sufficient to hold together such a ramshackle empire sprawled around the world forever. With 20/20 hindsight, it was always doomed to fragment into independent states, the dissolution, over which Churchill famously did not want to preside, not really covered by the fig-leaf of the Commonwealth.

    Given the rise of continental superpowers like the US, China and India, with Putin’s Russia clearly trying to reclaim the status of the old Soviet Union, means, as many others have pointed out, a separate UK will simply be irrelevant. Whether we like it or not, and many times we have good reason not to like it, we are a part of Europe and always will be. We need to throw off the parochial chauvinism that’s one of the hangovers of empire and take our place in Europe with our neighbors. They’re actually not such bad people once you get to know them.

  10. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  11. Apologies for straying off the topic, but surely there is something in the fact that the U.K is disproportionately clever. I don’t mean to suggest that other nations aren’t as clever; they may be cleverer on average or even absolutely cleverer. But by the measure of clever persons per total population surely the U.K. ranks near the top. Or are all the clever British and Irish I’m encountering on the internet and in the library unrepresentative? And does it mean nothing that nearly two-thirds of the U.K. considers the life of the mind (working as a writer, librarian, or bookseller) the ideal job?

    By the way, if you adopt my formula (# of clever persons per total population) surely the least clever people are found on the New Jersey Turnpike. This can be confirmed by measuring the occurrence of the phrase “Will you look at that @#$%* idiot?!”

  12. I’m not really sure, and I’ve creeped myself out to boot now that I’ve learned of John Nash’s death on that very highway.

  13. gcallah

    This one “Historians for Britain: The Betrayal of History and Historical Practice” was really awful!

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