The EU Referendum will be decided by history

By Caroline Harding

Perceptions of the United Kingdom have changed greatly with the political, social, economic and cultural changes that have occurred throughout its history. However, there now appears to be a discrepancy between the real and the imagined power of the UK based on its past. It can be said that the more positive aspects of British history have had a pervasive legacy, one that allows for a more powerful and successful image of the UK than is realistic. The assumptions concerning Britain’s surviving power could have damaging consequences, particularly for the impending referendum on the UK’s place in the European Union.

The United Kingdom, for such a geographically marginal country on the periphery of Europe, has played an important role in world history. For much of the past 350 years the UK has been economically, militarily and politically powerful, but in recent years this power has waned. However, the way the UK remembers its history, partly through museums, statues and Armistice Day ceremonies, may serve to preserve perceptions of British power beyond the realms of reality.

The history of the UK is a long and illustrious one. From being a political backwater in the reign of Henry VIII, the break from Rome and the 1588 Spanish Armada helped propagate a type of English Protestant nationalism. Ideas of national pride were furthered following the turmoil of the Civil War and the establishment of colonies in the New World. The newly unified Britain experienced great success in foreign trade first in the Americas then in Asia, undergoing the Industrial Revolution before any of its European counterparts. British history remains a fairly recognisable story of imperialism, war and political struggles up to the present day.

This article appears to maintain an overly large focus on the British Empire, and the beneficial aspects of the British Empire at that. Evidently, achievements in trade and war were made alongside working class exploitation, brutality towards people abroad, social movements and scientific developments. However it is the positive aspects that are ceremonially remembered by jubilees, antiques, even support of the army, contributing to an unrealistically grandiose image of the United Kingdom and its history.

One particularly important legacy of the UK’s history is the perception that Britain succeeded ‘on its own’. This is largely an exaggeration. Historically, though the UK may have presided over the most profitable trade networks or consistently avoided invasion; it did not accomplish these feats by itself. Collaboration was an incredibly important aspect of the UK’s past. It is widely acknowledged that developments in trade, military successes and the establishment of London as the financial capital of the world came only after the union between Scotland and England in 1707. The UK’s relationship with the United States also deserves a mention as a key example of cooperation. Many of Britain’s proudest moments, such as victory in 1945, were achieved only through American involvement and resources. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge the ethnic diversity in the UK, and the impact that foreign ideas and cultures had in shaping British history. A distinction between ‘English’ history and ‘British’ history soon emerges, with the former entailing a white man’s narrative that continues to pervade modern society.

Due to the complex and multi-ethnic nature of the UK I am not suggesting that the coverage of the Royal Wedding instilled a sense of nostalgia and British pride in everyone. However, the perception that the United Kingdom is a nation independent of, and perhaps superior to, the rest of Europe may be significant in influencing people’s decision to remain in the European Union. It is important to consider seemingly comical foreign perceptions of the UK; the French disdain for poor English food and emotional retardation for example may have more serious implications. Stereotypes such as the American belief that an English accent can denote intelligence, the idea that all Britons obsess over cricket and tea, and the association of brands such as Barbour with luxury serve to perpetuate a sense of British ‘otherness’. It appears from both domestic and foreign perceptions that the UK operates with a degree of autonomy from Europe, which might promote beliefs that the UK can thrive by itself.

It is clear that the way in which the United Kingdom has chosen to remember its history is significant in the present day. Celebrating instances like the siege of Dunkirk, deemed a “colossal military disaster” by Churchill, because of the way it encouraged national unity, is important because it shows how a sense of national pride based on history can be invoked. This could have repercussions for the EU referendum, as particular types of British history can be seen to illustrate why and how the UK has often succeeded more than and without its European counterparts.


Photograph by Charles Clegg, Flickr

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