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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain (or, Where does a Chaotic/Ironic view of History leave the Socially-/Politically-Committed Historian?)

So, um, I decided to join ‘Historians for Britain’.

 … Nah, not really.


If you live in the UK and keep an eye out for history-related news then, unless you have been hiding under a rock or, alternatively, buried under dissertation-marking, you will have heard of Historians for Britain, a group of mostly right-wing mostly historians (as Neil Gregor says in this piece for the Huff Post, if you weed out the non-researching purveyors of pulp history, journalists, polemicists, raconteurs, vel sim, the number of actual historians in Historians for Britain drops quite considerably).  Amongst the actually-qualified historians, in addition to the palpably racist Starkey, they include the honorary chairman of the Royal Holloway student Tories and a Manchester ancient historian who once, on Facebook, described David Cameron as a communist.  So, when they say they represent a range of political opinion, I suspect that the range runs from the moderate Right to the far Right.  Their website contains some less-than-optimally-honest shenanigans (such as apparently we can now expect in all areas of British public life).  Andrew Roberts is styled ‘Doctor Andrew Roberts’; he has an honorary doctorate from Saint Frithfroth’s college or some such. Still, as the ever-hilarious Sepp Blatter (the git that keeps giving) recently said, you can’t simply expect people to behave ethically.

Anyway, be all that as it may, Historians for Britain (hereafter HfB) are in favour of a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.  I suspect this may be code for a harder-line Eurosceptic view but, even if not, the suspicion was not helped by an article published in History Today by David Abulafia. This disappointed me - whatever else may be the case, I have admired Abulafia’s historical writing - but it did not, alas, surprise me.  This produced a wave of reactions.  In addition to Neil Gregor’s piece, the most significant, in some ways, was a letter entitled ‘Fog in the Channel: Historians Isolated' sent to History Today and signed by over 250 academic historians (including yours truly).  A Royal Holloway-based group called Historians for History was set up (let’s all just take a moment to ponder that name … and … moving on) there is another group called, predictably enough, Academics for Europe (and apparently a #historiansforEurope hashtag). A blog post calling out the historically-misleading earlier medieval elements of Abulafia’s narrative was posted by Charles West.(1)  A little later, West’s colleague Martial Staub posted another, to my mind more sophisticated, take on the subject and a similarly thoughtful piece, which (after some initial scepticism) impressed me, was posted by Lucy Inglis.  Bizarrely, Sean Lang, last seen in the company of most of HfB, the AbuMafia if you will, in their support of Michael Gove’s triumphalist British history curriculum proposals, derided the idea that Europe was threatening some sort of takeover of history.(2)  Eventually the whole business became the subject of a Guardian editorial.

It is of mild amusement (to me if no one else) that the allegedly Whiggish historians of HfB appear to be predicating their argument not upon a Whig notion of progress but rather upon a very un-Whiggish idea of a sort of mythic golden age when things were so much better, before we got involved with Europe.  They seem to me to want to return to, or (probably with more likelihood) at least reaffirm a loyalty to, that mythic past.  By contrast, the arguments espoused by their opponents (those accusing HfB of Whiggishness) seem logically (and ironically) predicated on the very Whiggish idea that where we are now is, in some small way or other, the best of all possible worlds.  Britain has always been a part of Europe, which has been A Good Thing (or at least A Better Thing than its alternatives), and with closer ties it is An Even Better Thing.  Without the existence of these predicates (whether held consciously or otherwise), you would have to ask why either camp is arguing the toss at all about the UK’s relationship with Europe.  After all, if you think that the current Britain, in Europe, is better than a past Britain, more separate from the EU, why would you be putting forward a reading of history that stresses an englischer/britischer Sonderweg as a positive argument?  Similarly, why  valorise a reading of the history of Britain as integral to Europe if you think that greater separation would be better?  Without these predicates, therefore, you have to wonder why either set of arguments would matter a jot, unless this were simply a rather pointless and old-fashioned positivist-empiricist in-house squabble over whose reading of the ‘facts’ was ‘correct’. That or plain old personal animosity.

The answer of course is that – while I find Abulafia’s arguments (empirical and methodological) a little, shall we say, surprising for someone with a chair in history at Cambridge, and while I must in honesty also admit (personally) to not much liking HfB’s supporters while having a number of friends in the other camp – neither set of arguments in fact does matter a jot, as far as the debate on Britain’s place in the EU is concerned.  If historians should get involved in this debate (and I think that they probably should) it must be in a very different – a better, more sophisticated – way than this.

What disappoints me about this debate, if you can call it a debate, is the view of history’s, and historians’, role in discussion of public policy.  What most of the debate thus far boils down to is this:  “I am a Euro-sceptic and ‘history shows us’ that Britain  has always been separate from (= is best off out of) Europe” versus “I am pro-EU and ‘history shows us’ that Britain has always been an integral part of (= is best off in) Europe”.  There is I suspect a further level to this string of binaries, although it is doubtless much less clear-cut, and that is a rough equation of the first position with the (broadly-defined) Right and of the second with the (broadly-defined) Left.  I confess to being very much a pro-European.  Indeed I dare say that, as a socialist and thus a staunch opponent of any and all nationalisms, I am probably more in favour of a federal European state than most, even among HfB’s opponents (and that would be the basis of my own desire/demand for necessary EU reform); that was one reason I signed up to the ‘Fog in the Channel...’ letter.  And I confess to finding HfB’s arguments historically less subtle than those of their opponents. I cannot honestly judge the extent to which the former confession governs the latter: to a significant extent, no doubt, but not, I think, entirely.

The point is this: HfB and its opponents share exactly the same, entirely conventional approach to the ‘relevance’ of history to current political debate; in other words, to ‘why history matters’. That relevance, as is clear from any close reading of almost all of the contributions to the exchange, consists entirely in the deployment of historical ‘fact’. I find this, to be blunt, more than a tad wearisome. [The involvement of historians in the referendum on Scottish separatism took exactly the same tedious form.] What seems largely to be at stake is who can assemble the biggest pile of facts.  This is not going to make much of a difference, let alone decisively carry the day, either way. By way of demonstration, and if you can bear it, just read ‘below the line’ on the on-line version of the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ piece. To quote the (in my estimation) criminally underrated Andrew Roachford,  ‘I don’t want to argue over who is wrong and who is right’.

Let me row back from the extreme position that might be inherent in that statement. First, it is very important to deploy historical fact to counter misleading public presentations of what ‘history shows us’.  This was another reason I signed up to the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ letter.  There were some seriously dubious elements in Abulafia’s piece and it was important to point out that what he set out was very far from being the whole, let alone the only, story of British history, as he and HfB – implicitly (by their very name) – claimed. Second, you can’t get far in any discussion of history without some attention to the basic facts. Put another way, while you can oppose positivism from a discrete non-positivist standpoint, you can never stand outside empiricism – critique (to paraphrase Derrida on Reason) can only come from within.  However, as I have said too many times to count, history (as opposed to chronicling or antiquarianism) is the process of thinking, interpretation, explanation and critique, carried out on the basis of those facts, it does not stop at the latter's simple accumulation (most historical 'facts' are, to me, not especially interesting in and of themselves: this happened; that did not happen – factual accuracy is a duty not a virtue).

More seriously, both sides essentially see the course of history (as established by these facts) as providing a set of tramlines governing the proper path we should take in future.  This removes any kind of emancipatory potential from the study of history. Put another way, and to restate the counter-factual posited earlier, suppose you agreed with Abulafia (and after all he’s not wrong about everything) that Britain’s history was, fundamentally, profoundly different from that of mainland Europe and had run a quite separate course (there is a case that could be put to support that contention that would have to be taken seriously, even if it is not the one put forward by HfB).  But suppose that, unlike him, you thought that this had been a terrible thing and thought that Britain needed to incorporate itself more fully in Europe.  Or suppose that you thought that the authors of ‘Fog in the Channel…’ were fundamentally right that Britain’s history was entirely entwined with that of the mainland but that you thought that this was wholly regrettable.  In still other words, suppose that – like me – you thought that the course of the past had no force and provided no secure or reliable guide at all to what ought to be done in future.

So, what would one be able to contribute to a debate on these (or other) issues if one held a (superficially) seemingly nihilistic view, like mine, of history as random, chaotic, ironic, and unpredictable, and of the past as having no ability in and of itself to compel anyone to do anything? What, so to speak, would be the point of history?  Why would it matter?

In his excellent blog-post – in my view, the best intervention in this discussion by some way (impressive not least for its concision) – Martial Staub draws attention to the discontinuities of history that subvert any attempt at a unified narrative or quest for origins. This seems to me to point us at a much more valuable and sophisticated means by which the study of history (rather than ‘History’ itself, that somehow mystic object, or objective force) can make a political contribution.  Every dot that is later joined up to make a historical narrative represents a point of decision, of potential or, if you prefer, of freedom, where something quite different could have happened.  To understand any of these decisions, as again I have said many times before, it is necessary to look at what people were trying to do, at what the options open to them were, or those they thought were open to them, what they knew – in short at all the things that didn’t happen, which frequently include the intended outcomes.  You cannot simply explain them as steps on a pre-ordained path towards a later result, or as the natural outcomes of the preceding events.  Any present moment of political decision represents the same thing: a point of choice, of decision, which requires serious thought.  It should not be closed down by the idea that some 'burden of history' or other compels us to go one way rather than another.  Those decision points that I just called the dots joined up to make a story were, at their time, points of freedom when any number of things were possible.  The unpicking of narrative constructions makes this very clear and that – in my view – is the point that emerges from historical study.

This lesson, for want of a better word (I mistrust ‘lessons from history’), points at a string of possible subversions.  Staub points out the subversion of the ‘national’ story but at the same time it subverts any similar ‘European’ master narrative.  Britain can be said to have had a history different from that of other European countries – true enough - but to no greater extent than any other region of Europe has a history different from the others.  It may be true that at some points British history seemed to run on a course that bucked European trends, but exactly the same can be said of, for example, Italian or Spanish history at various points.  What is Europe anyway?  Is it any more natural a unit of analysis than any other?  In the Roman period, the idea of thinking of the north of Africa as somehow a different area from the northern shore of the Mediterranean would be very odd. Indeed the Mediterranean basin can be seen as a unified area of historical analysis (who, after all, knows that better than David Abulafia?), rather than as different continents divided by a sea – perhaps one with different histories from northern Europe or the North Sea cultural zone (which obviously includes Britain).  All of these points also contribute to a historical critique and dismantling of the idea of the nation (any nation) itself, not simply the national story (see also here). All historical narratives are constructs so (unless one is based upon the misuse or fabrication of evidence, or not staying true to the basic 'facts' of what did or did not happen) one cannot be claimed to be more accurate than another.  No one can win an argument on that basis.  The best that can happen (and it is important) is the demonstration that there is more than one story to be told.

Above all, what I find to be one of the most important contributions that historical study can make, in terms of social/political engagement, is the subversion of all reifications, of all attempts to render contingent categorisations as natural.  And of course it similarly subverts claims to represent contingent oppositions as eternal or natural.

All these subversions arise from what I have repeatedly argued on this blog are historical study’s most important benefits: the critique of what one is presented with, as evidence, and the simultaneous requirement to see similarity – shared human experience – in difference and diversity, or to listen to and understand that evidence).

So I would contend that the view of history sketched above is very much not a disabling, nihilistic one but quite the opposite.  The careful, sympathetic yet critical investigation of the traces of the past, the deconstruction of narrative, nation and so on, can and should free us from the burdens that people want to impose on us in the name of history.  The appreciation of the once possible but now impossible potentials at the decision-points of the past can and should allow us to think twice about what people tell us are now impossibilities and open our minds to the potentials and possibilities of the present.

If you want a catchphrase, try this: think with history, act in the present.



(1) Some sort of Twitter exchange ensued (as far as I can tell) between West and popular story-teller Tom Holland, who claimed that the ‘fact’ that Æthelberht of Kent issued his laws in English showed the distinctiveness of early medieval English history.  West retorted that Æthelberht was following Roman precedent, but the real point, in my view, is that we don’t actually know for sure what language Æthelberht’s laws were issued in.  Indeed, I think it inherently unlikely that they were initially issued in Old English rather than Latin.  Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, pp.464-5.

(2) Lang was responding to this very bizarre piece by Abulafia.