With both sides peddling myths, voters must ask: what does the EU deliver?
Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30
There is no historical case for leaving the EU. There is no historical case for staying in. That's because this isn't an existential matter. It's a practical decision. Do you think Britain is better off in or out? I think the latter. So I'm voting for Brexit.
The vast majority of historians probably want to stay. This doesn't surprise me. Most of my colleagues are social democrats of the Roy Jenkins variety - which is dandy.
What is frustrating is the idea, encouraged by the media, that historians have some special, purely objective insight on the modern world thanks to their familiarity with the past. We don't.
Knowing the ins-and-outs of 17th-century Westphalia does not make you an expert on EU agricultural policy.
Most academics - good academics - are specialists to the point of being loners. Go to a historical conference and you'll find a room full of people who don't know what each other is talking about.
I'm not saying that history isn't fun, illuminating, thought-provoking. It's all of those things. But when it becomes mixed with politics, it becomes mythology. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. So long as you know that what you're reading is prejudiced.
The maverick Leave myth is that the British are not really Europeans. We were yoked by Norman invaders until Henry VIII began the fightback in the 16th century with the English Reformation. And sometime between Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria we asserted parliamentary sovereignty while liberating ourselves from Europe and going out into the world - building a multicultural empire. Ted Heath is the Judas in this myth, the man who sold us out to the Common Market and, before we knew it, everything the Germans had tried to do in two world wars they'd finally accomplished through diplomacy.
It's easy to see why Europhile historians find this myth appalling. It reeks of know-nothing nationalism.
Writing in the 'Financial Times', Simon Schama points out that British institutions have been heavily influenced by European ideas and physical invasions (he is right: the Glorious Revolution was a Dutch coup d'etat), while the genetic and cultural character of these islands have been shaped by wave after wave of immigration. So far, so accurate - but it's when Schama makes the leap towards saying that the truly British thing to do would be to vote Remain that the historian's analysis slips, as it always does, into myth.
The Remainers want us to believe that this is the most divisive, violent election ever. Have they forgotten the Troubles? The bombs, the shootings, the murder of innocents on both sides?
The Remainers say that a vote for the EU is a vote in favour of the free movement of peoples. It's not: the EU erects high barriers to migrants from outside its continent. Refugees are picked up in Greece and dumped in Turkey, with the effect that many take the treacherous route from North Africa to Europe instead.
Remainers say that a vote for the EU is a vote for tolerance. Yet if we stay within the EU it is only a matter of time before we're in a political union with genuine fascists such as Le Pen and Wilders, who understand that the longer the EU's growth and errors go unchecked, the better they will do at the polls.
The Remainers say that the EU has brought peace to Europe. What kind of half-baked history is that? It was the bomb that brought an uneasy peace to Europe until 1989. In the 1990s, there was the bloodbath of Yugoslavia, which the EU did nothing about. And now the EU flirts with Ukraine and talks about creating its own army. This is dangerous fantasy, like children playing with matches.
My point is that I - as a historian - don't really want people to vote on the basis of some grand narrative or entirely false choice between sovereignty versus racial harmony, which has been invented only in the heat of this campaign.
I'd rather they cleared their minds of all that junk. Get back to the basics. What does the EU offer? Does it deliver?
Remainers say we should give up some of our democratic accountability in exchange for access to the single market and, they claim, greater economic stability.
Leavers say the deal is a bad one. We lose too much democracy in exchange for access to a declining market and a political union that is fraught with risk.
Let's not talk about the past but the future: the EU is planning to create a unitary state.
Its leaders have said as much - higher taxes, an army, greater authority for the bank are all on the table.
The EU has decided that only faster integration will see it through the present crisis. They might be correct: what the EU wants to be it can only be if it is effectively one country. But that is not in Britain's national interest, something we've signalled by remaining outside the Eurozone.
So one can either ride this train as far as the driver wants to go or jump off now. A so-called leap in the dark actually gives back control of policy-making. (© Daily Telegraph London)