Business for Britain is, I suppose, just another lobby group, though perhaps a little shadier than most (its website home page seems to lack the common “About” tag and the pursuit of another line of inquiry through http://businessforbritain.org/advisorycouncil led me to the “404/Page not found” brick wall). Nevertheless, there is a Guardian report on its launch two years ago which informs us that its supporters include “Lord Bilimoria from Cobra beer, Richard Burrows from British American Tobacco, hairstylist John Freida, Lord Harris from Carpetright, Moni Varma, the rice tycoon and John Clement from Littlewoods” and we know that its chief executive is Matthew Elliot. Eliot’s pedigree is in the European Foundation, a Eurosceptic think tank founded by Bill Cash MP; the Social Affairs Unit, a think tank which publishes the journal Standpoint, which was once also funded by British American Tobacco and which promotes “personal responsibility” (as opposed to “social engineering”); Big Brother Watch (say no more); and NOtoAV, the campaigning group which saw off the Lib Dems’ hopes for electoral reform in and some proportionality in the British electoral system in the May 2011 referendum.
After all that, you will not be surprised to find that Business for Britain is in favour of a thoroughgoing renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union before “the nation” gets to vote on whatever package might emerge from that process. Nothing too unusual about that in Britain these days. But what seems to distinguish BFB is that, reading between the lines, it, unlike David Cameron, looks forward to an unsuccessful renegotiation, or a negotiated package that it can denounce as a fraud, followed by a No vote in the referendum and a British exit from the European Union. What it does not want is a short campaign based on a largely or partly cosmetic deal in which Juncker et al try to make Cameron look as good as they reasonably can, a sharp and short campaign in which a buoyant prime minister enlists the Confederation of British Industry to put the frighteners on the electorate about the economic and employment consequences of an exit, and a fairly clear Yes, putting the Europe question off the agenda in Britain for perhaps another generation.
There is nothing too surprising about BFB’s campaign. You’ll have seen this kind of thing before: “REVEALED: UK PAYS A FIFTH OF ALL VAT THAT GOES INTO THE EU BUDGET” (all the campaign main points are in capitals) or “WHY THE UK MUST SECURE REFORM OF EU FINANCIAL REGULATION OR BE RULED BY THE EUROZONE”, or, on a more populist note, “OVER A HUNDRED TOP CHEFS AND RESTAURATEURS HIT OUT AT EU RULES COSTING MILLIONS” – well, what would one expect from a “top chef”?
But what’s this? “BFB LAUNCES HISTORIANS FOR BRITAIN CAMPAIGN”? It is not unusual for historians to have political views. It is not unusual for them to sharply disagree with each other over interpretation, not just on the basis of “the evidence” but influenced by the ideological orientations they bring to their work. It is, though, somewhat unusual for them to publicly lobby for a particular political position and to argue that they are doing so as historians and on the basis that their stance is clearly underwritten by history.
The fact that it is so unusual may explain the somewhat apologetic or nervous tone with which Dr David Abulafia, the chairman of Historians for Britain and author of the splendid The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, begins the process of setting out the stall for his organisation.
In many ways the organisation that I and several colleagues have been setting up over the last year could equally well have been entitled ‘Historians for Europe’, for we are not hostile to Europe …
[and later] That might sound like a political manifesto rather than a series of historical arguments. Yet we hold political views that span the spectrum from the right to the left.
So HFB is really quite Euro-friendly and could even see the UK staying in the EU if it were only to “reform its ways” and stop forcing a “United States of Europe” down everyone’s throat. And it is not a right-wing organisation, in spite of the fact that it was set up as an instrument of battle by Britain for Business, which seems to be stuffed with people with impeccable hard right Eurosceptic pedigrees.
And the message? Britain is different. It “has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours”, (who, one is given to understand, did not develop in a distinctive way or even distinctive ways but all in the same bad way). Britain has had parliamentary assemblies going back to the Middle Ages and its history, “in spite of coups d’état by Henry VII and William of Orange” (and Henry IV and Oliver Cromwell, and the appalling bloody struggles for power and ensuing anarchy of the Plantagenet period and the savagery of the Wars of the Roses and that little unpleasantness in the middle of the seventeenth century and the execution and deportation for petty crime of the poor throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the bloody record, reaching right across the world, of British imperialism and colonialism) …deep breath … has been continuous and “[t]he British political temper has been milder than that in the larger European countries”.
In 1973, Dr Abulafia continues, “the United Kingdom joined a Common Market [actually those funny continentals called it the European Economic Community: community and market may not be the same things] and there are many who would have preferred the founders of what is now the European Union to have forgotten their dreams of ‘ever-greater union’ and to have concentrated on making that economic association work better”. Mmm. And some, like former French prime minister Michel Rocard http://bit.ly/1s5CXV4 who have come to think it was a pity that the United Kingdom was allowed in in the first place since its policy since 1973 has largely been one of obstruction, if not destruction.
In conclusion, Dr A returns to the political question:
How one votes in a referendum should be influenced by what sort of new offer is on the table following renegotiation of Britain’s position within the EU. That offer has to reflect the distinctive character of the United Kingdom, rooted in its largely uninterrupted history since the Middle Ages.
So is anyone going to challenge this absurdity? (What, when it’s at home, is an “uninterrupted history” for example?) Well yes. In response to Historians for Britain we have the newly formed group Historians for History, which in a broadside published at the weekend, argues that the proposition that British history followed a distinct path throughout history is untenable.
The unambiguous proposition [of the HFB manifesto] is that as national communities from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean struggled through a millennium of violent discord and political discontinuity, Britain followed its own relatively stable, more enlightened special path. This argument doesn’t stand up to even the most casual scrutiny …
As evidence of Britain’s unique historical trajectory, the authors cite ‘principles of political conduct that date back to the 13th Century’. This is presumably a reference to the notions of liberty for all that are thought to have been enshrined in the Magna Carta, sealed by King John in 1215. Yet although this medieval treaty between the Plantagenet king and his feudal lords was later interpreted in an admirably liberal fashion by some, its originally intended purpose was anything but democratic. In terms of ancient systems of democracy, Greece clearly has a much stronger claim than Britain, and the UK was behind several of its continental neighbours, including the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Denmark, in introducing modern universal suffrage. A genuinely democratic system of government was fiercely resisted by political and social elites in Britain and had to be fought for, tooth and nail, until it finally arrived in the late 1920s. Those who continued to be subjected to British imperial rule would have to wait longer.
The statement, signed by Edward Madigan and Graham Smith of the history department of Royal Holloway, University of London, and supported by four departmental colleagues, concludes:
We believe that historians have a potentially valuable role to play in communicating with the public about the past and we warmly welcome comments or contributions from anyone who would like to weigh in on the debate.
It is highly unlikely that Britain’s future in our outside of the European Union will be decided by arguments about history, even if historical assumptions are alive and kicking in the minds of some participants, who, like Shakespeare’s Malvolio, seem, historically speaking, to be “sick of self-love”. Nevertheless, this is stimulating stuff. Let battle commence.