Month: June 2016

The Irony of Brexit: The UK as Forerunner to the EU

John Bull and Sawney Scot

It shouldn’t surprise you, perhaps, that the debate over Brexit—whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union—has found its way into the British historical profession. The issue has divided historians badly. While they do not argue explicitly in favor of shaking off the EU, “Historians for Britain” have provided some useful ammunition for the “Leave” campaign. Their observations have came under fire in “Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated,” an essay that appeared in History Today. This essay has served as a rallying point for those scholars who oppose Historians for Britain. This group does not go by any particular name, and while their arguments tend to support the EU, they do not argue in favor of “Remain” outright. You can find a nice summary of the debate in this Financial Times article by Gideon Rachman:

The article claims that three main themes characterize the arguments of the Historians for Britain: continuity, moderation, and separation.  First, British institutions, particularly political ones, have shown a long continuity that stretches back to the middle ages. Second, throughout this period, Britain has shown a political moderation not found in other nations (e.g. it has avoided the extremes of fascism, communism, anti-semitism, etc.). Third, Britain has always been semi-detached from Europe. These themes add up to an argument that seems to state, “Britain has developed a distinct set of good institutions on its own and will be just fine without Europe.” Opponents of Historians for Britain have contested every one of these arguments, claiming that Britain is not exceptional and that its history has been characterized by a long and intimate relationship with Europe.

One Thing after Another is happy to see historians tackling important contemporary issues and feels pleased that the Financial Times has taken notice of this debate within the historical profession. However, One Thing after Another feels that much of this discussion is not helpful. First, the argument has been inconclusive; Rachman finishes his article by indicating that neither side has necessarily won. Second, despite Rachman’s claim to the contrary, a good portion of this debate is moot. For example, the fact that Britain has long been engaged with Europe does not necessarily signify that the EU is the best way to sustain that engagement.

It was while considering this question that One Thing after Another ran across the following article by Daniel Gross on Slate:

Gross’ argument is that the free exchange of goods, services, and labor are what made Britain great. With the triumph of Brexit, Britain has turned its back on these pillars of success. One Thing after Another believes that this thesis is simplistic. The extent of free trade’s contribution to British success is difficult to establish, and many other factors accounted for that success. Furthermore, Gross never actually defines what “success” means, and he overlooks the seamier side of Britain’s achievements. Still, Gross’ article made One Thing after Another think of an important historical development that we ought to recall as we consider Britain’s membership in the EU: the formation of the United Kingdom itself which, at the time, created the largest free trade zone in Europe.

It was the Acts of Union (1707) that made the United Kingdom. Before that point, England and Scotland had been separate states. After the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, they had been yoked in a personal union (with some interruptions, the same person happened to fill the position of monarch in both countries), but they were still different countries. Such a situation might sound odd to us, but in Europe at the time, it was a fairly common circumstance. It was also terribly difficult for both parties. The monarch of England and Scotland spent most of his (or her) time in London surrounded by a largely English court with English advisors pursuing English objectives. And since the monarch directed foreign policy (e.g. declared war, made peace, and directed armed forces), Scotland’s interests were often subordinated to England’s. But Scotland still retained a parliament, and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, that parliament obtained a number of powers allowing it to pursue goals that ran contrary to what the English saw as their interests.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William and Mary had sailed from the Netherlands to take the English throne, England had been enlisted in William’s fight to deny the hegemony of Europe to the Bourbons of France and Spain. Scotland had repeatedly been compelled to fight alongside England. At the beginning of the 18th century, however, the Scottish parliament sought to direct Scotland’s trade and foreign policy (the Wine Act and the Act of Peace and War). Even more important, the Scots put the personal union at risk through the Act of Security (1704). The act stipulated that the Scots would not accept the English succession to the throne as their own unless England made certain guarantees about religion, government, and trade. An exceedingly awkward battle between the two parliaments ensued. English statesmen feared Scotland would eventually find itself arrayed on France’s side (Scotland had traditionally resorted to the “auld alliance” with France as a counterweight against England). In the worst case scenario, Scotland could become a base for French armies to invade England. It was from this tangled mess that both sides pushed forward and produced the Acts of Union.

The Acts of Union are a terribly contentious subject among historians. Many charge that the union of the two states was nothing more than an act of English imperialism (they often point to the large-scale bribery necessary to get the act through Scotland’s parliament). Such a view is not terribly nuanced. For sure, it was not a union of equals. England was rich and had a population of five million. Scotland was poor and had a population of around one million. Moreover, Scotland had recently been bankrupted by the Darien expedition in which the country had tried to colonize Panama. This imbalance explains why the Scots only obtained 45 MPs in the new British House of Commons (as compared to over 500 English MPs). We must remember that at the time, though, representation had nothing to do with numbers but with a combination of factors including wealth and interests. But the Scots were able to obtain a number of concessions. They kept their own church as well as their own courts and laws. They also got a British-wide free trade zone and a common currency (which they wanted). The English, for their part, got the Scots to accept the English succession to a British throne (e.g. the Hanoverian family that succeeded Queen Anne would rule over the new United Kingdom).

As the result of some audacious thinking, hard bargaining, a willingness to compromise, and some liberal doses of English cash in the form of bribes, the English and Scots created the largest free trade zone in Europe. They also erected a state that would become a major European power and give them the ability to dominate world trade for years. For sure, there were winners (the great merchant princes of Glasgow) and losers (Highland clans) within what was a highly coercive mercantilist system. Moreover, we should not forget the costs of union and the growing pangs of the market economy that followed. The Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 indicate all was not well in the early years of the union. That both were crushed by superior British forces indicates, however, that the balance of power on the British Isles lay clearly with the new union. In the long run, Scotland witnessed rising prosperity, and ambitious Scots obtained enormous opportunities within a British, not English, empire. The English obtained security, and the prosperity of Scotland redounded to their own. On top of all that, as a number of historians have pointed out, the two people together quickly created a new, British identity that overlay national and regional identities.

The origins of the United Kingdom give much food for thought as we think about the EU and Brexit. It is possible to draw a number of parallels between the United Kingdom and the EU. Both were created in times of great danger as a means of enhancing security and stability. Both saw the sinking of sovereignty into a larger supranational organization. Both created free trade zones with monetary unions. Both witnessed the integration of poor regions with much richer ones. And both saw resentments arise as people from poorer areas migrated to wealthier ones (for the character of “Sawney Scot,” whom we see in the image above with an early version of John Bull, read “Polish plumber”). It is, of course, possible to overstrain the comparison. For example, integration in the case of the United Kingdom went far beyond what the EU has accomplished. This was largely the case because Britain was formed by a partnership between just two states, a very powerful one that could bring much pressure to bear, and a lesser one whose only trump card was a capacity to make mischief. The EU was the product of a more consensual process that involved 28 states.

One cannot help be struck by the irony that large numbers of Britons, whose state in many ways originally resembled the EU, are now hostile to the EU project. One could retort that the EU is both less and more than the United Kingdom in all the wrong ways. Or, perhaps more to the point, many Britons do not feel that they are in a position where they must tolerate the sacrifices that Scots had to embrace back in 1707 (i.e. loss of sovereignty to a larger supranational organization headquartered in a distant capital). Yet, Britain’s current position does in some ways resemble that of Scotland on the eve of the union. Scotland’s relative weight within the new United Kingdom was roughly the same as Britain’s weight within the contemporary EU: in 1707, Scotland’s population constituted one-sixth of the new United Kingdom while the United Kingdom’s current share of the EU economy is also about one-sixth. Within the union, Scots had similar reasons to complain as Britons do today about the EU: Scots only held just over 10% of the seats in the Commons which sat in distant London (which Scots saw in the same way that many Britons see Brussels today) and made laws for Scotland.

Realistically speaking, though, it is hard to see what better alternative Scotland had in 1707 than the United Kingdom; a small state, it lived in a dangerous world with an overbearing neighbor. It took a risk in joining what it could not beat. The United Kingdom was not perfect, but it was better than other available options. In today’s dangerous world, it is hard to see how Britain, a small state on the fringes of Europe, has a better alternative than membership in a larger organization like the EU. One might wish the EU was more transparent, democratic, and dynamic. One might wish it was better led. One might resent its meddling. But to do a mash-up of a well-known Churchill quote, the EU is Britain’s worst choice—except for all the others.

Very Short Reviews: Ruth Scurr’s _Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution_

Fatal Purity

The 222nd anniversary of Maximilien Robespierre’s execution is coming up (July 28, 1794 or 10 Thermidor Year II, according to the French revolutionary calendar), so One Thing after Another thought it would be appropriate to resurrect the Very Short Review series this summer with an excellent biography of Robespierre.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Holt, 2006).

  1. Scurr is primarily interested in delineating the relationship between Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution; as she puts it, “At what point exactly did the lawyer from Arras begin to believe in the image that the Revolution reflected back to him” and “Why did that image become so dangerously hypnotic, for him personally, for his contemporaries, and for posterity?”
  2. Like other biographers, Scurr detects the heavy influence of Rousseau in Robespierre’s thinking, particularly in the desire to create a virtuous society (which was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself) and a belief in the supremacy of the General Will (not what the majority wanted but rather what was in the best interest of society as a whole).
  3. Scurr also emphasizes the impact of Robespierre’s religious ideas—while he saw the Catholic Church and its priests as enemies of the revolution, he was a man susceptible to religious feeling, who believed in God, and felt that religion would facilitate the development of virtue (which is why he supported the cult of the Supreme Being).
  4. Of course, Robespierre’s strange and paradoxical personality—he was aloof, principled, sensitive, incorruptible, dogmatic, paranoid, idealistic, and ambitious—shaped his political strengths (a capacity to stay “on message,” an ability to obtain tremendous moral force, an uncanny knack for detecting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and a dogged perseverance) and weaknesses (a suspicion of other and a susceptibility to abstractions that divorced him from the messy reality of the French revolutionary politics and life in general).
  5. Robespierre saw no further into the future than others (e.g. in 1789, he had no inkling the monarchy would be overthrown in 1792, nor did he dare suggest such a thing), but he had a very good sense of how to seize the moment for political advantage.
  6. Robespierre’s great strength was as an articulator of ideas (the Comte de Mirabeau said of him, “He will go far because he believes everything he says.”) who could dominate an assembly, not as an executive politician who always knew how to navigate the complicated and overlapping Parisian centers of power: the chief executive (the Committee of Public Safety), the legislature (the National Convention), the factions within the legislature (Hébertistes and Dantonists), the municipal authority (the Commune and its many sections), and the various political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers).
  7. We see Robespierre’s strengths at work when he defeated Brissot and the Girondins on a number of issues (e.g. the execution of Louis XVI, the erection of revolutionary tribunals, and the trial of Marat) before literally destroying them.
  8. At the same time, though, Robespierre’s obsession with virtue and his conviction that conspiracies threatened the revolution that sought to implement that virtue led to a madness that revolved around the following question: “How can you tell a sincere man in politics?”
  9. Another important component in Robespierre’s destruction was his self-identification with the revolution that he believed had to be protected at all costs—it a) reinforced his unwillingness to compromise with others and, b) in the eyes of many, tainted him with its excesses.
  10. Calmly and without rancor, Scurr concludes that Robespierre was sincere and honest, but even a sincere and honest man can lack a sense of proportion, become detached from reality, and commit terrible crimes (the Law of 22 Prairial, to name one example).

Hugh Dubrulle

Van Uden Wins Senior Major Award

Van Uden with St. Benedict

History major Kristen Van Uden graduated last week a proud member of the Class of 2016. She won the History Department Senior Major Award for her high GPA, engagement in multiple fields of history, and contributions to the discipline inside and outside the classroom. One Thing After Another asked her to reflect on her four years as a history major.

Q: What drew you to Saint Anselm College and led you to become a history major?

A: I entered Saint Anselm College undeclared, and was considering several humanities majors such as history, politics, English, etc. History truly encompasses all other fields: to understand a historical period in its fullness, you must take into consideration the period’s literature, economic trends, philosophical and theological trends, and, of course, political climate. The first history class I took as a freshman was Professor Dubrulle’s Modern Europe. One of the main ways we engaged with history was through literature and primary political sources, all against the philosophical background of the Enlightenment. I realized that studying history would fulfill my curiosity about all of these fields, and I couldn’t have made a better decision.

Q: How did you discover your love of the Russian language?

A: It was a very organic thing—I never rationalized it to myself. I was always fascinated by languages, and by the turbulent history of Russia. My interdisciplinary minor allowed me to take courses in Russian literature, politics, and history in addition to the language. I think a familiarity with the language let me engage more with these classes—for example, everything about Chechnya makes sense when you understand that Grozny, the name of its capital, means “terrible.” I even tried using a primary source in Russian for my thesis. Additionally, knowledge of Russian is especially relevant today. It’s a really fun, if difficult, language to learn, and since I have been studying Russian I’ve been compelled to study even more diverse languages—I’ve been studying Hebrew this year.

Q: We understand that a walking tour you designed is on sale at the Manchester Historic Association. How did that come about?

A: It originated as a project for Professor Salerno’s Applied History class designed to engage the students with public history in our surrounding community. Having grown up in Manchester, I had always wondered what the stories behind the city’s monuments were. Much of the information is available online or elsewhere, but I wanted to create a quick, accessible guide for anyone who wanted an introductory reference. I started the project hoping that only a few people would use it—and now they’re selling it at the Millyard Museum downtown! I hope people find it a helpful resource.

Q: You have also done other types of “public history” (history outside the classroom) during your four years. Could you tell us about your transcriptions for the New Hampshire Historical Society and your Oral Histories of Communism Project?

A: As part of my work as a research assistant, I transcribed a diary of an 18th/19th century farmer and potter from Concord, NH named Daniel Clark. His diary serves mainly as an almanac of the weather and a log of his work and sales, along with important family and community records detailing the timing of births, deaths, marriages, and so on. It has been a really interesting peek into the daily life and practices of the era. One thing that struck me was how hard Daniel had to work to keep up his business. I also loved reading entries about famous historic events—Daniel notes the elections of each new NH governor and mentions several battles of the War of 1812.

Doing this transcript prepared me for the transcripts I completed of my oral history interviews. I interviewed four individuals and will be interviewing at least one more this summer. My original goal was to gain skills in conducting oral histories while accruing knowledge about my topic: life under communism. My topic was soon broadened to stretch as far back as WWII because of the incredible people who were willing to speak with me. I was fascinated by the stories of these people and wanted to provide an outlet for them to share their family stories with a greater community. The interviews and transcripts will be archived at the New Hampshire Historical Society for research purposes.

In one interview, I talked to a 96-year-old gentleman who had been forced to join the Hungarian army as a chauffeur during WWII and then later rebuilt his life here in America. Connecting his personal story to research I had done helped me, of course, but I was also able to share information with him and his family that they didn’t know before—it was an educational experience both ways. Witnesses to historic events are indispensable primary sources, and the experiences and opinions shared with me have afforded me a fresh perspective on historic events. I have always loved reading memoirs, and to play an active role in helping others record their own sort of memoir was an unbelievable opportunity that I hope to continue with.

Q: You have really excelled in a wide variety of research in your history major. You did a senior thesis on King Michael’s 1944 Coup in Romania. Why did you choose that topic and what did you learn?

A: My senior thesis was entitled “Out of the Lager and Into the Gulag: Romanian Foreign Relations Before and After King Michael’s Coup.” The imagery I was going for with the title was that of a politically captive Romania, unable to make its own foreign policy decisions because of the overwhelming power of its neighbors, Nazi Germany and the USSR. I used Foreign Relations of the United States, a comprehensive collection published annually by the State Department comprised of correspondence between diplomats. I focused on the telegrams detailing the meetings between Romanian proponents of the coup and Allied representatives in Cairo during the summer of 1944. I traced the development of the offered armistice terms and came to the conclusion that King Michael’s coup, by which Romania transferred allegiance to the Allied side in August 1944, secured more favorable terms for Romania. The second part of my thesis focuses on how the Cold War took shape when the Soviets violated armistice terms in Romania.

My original interest in King Michael stemmed from my fascination with all of the overthrown monarchies of the 20th century. But, whereas King Peter of Yugoslavia sort of faded into the background, King Michael took an active role in the fate of his country. I was intrigued by the fact that he was so young (early 20’s) when he staged the coup, and that he is the last surviving sovereign leader from World War II—he’s still alive! Once I found FRUS, my thesis took on a more political tone. I loved analyzing the motives of the various leaders and the strategic importance of Romania to both sides during WWII. It is a country often forgotten in the history of the war, and I hope I was able to provide some new document analysis that fits into bigger historical patterns of the war. I presented my thesis at the regional Phi Alpha Theta conference last month at SUNY Plattsburgh, and it will be published on their Digital Commons for future research purposes.

Q: Given all those projects, it is hard to believe you had a lot of time for life beyond history! But we hear you were part of a music ensemble, and were also active in other offices on campus. Could you tell us more about these?

A: I was president of the Saint Anselm College Chamber Music Ensemble for my junior and senior years. We consisted of several flutes, cellos, and violins and held about 5-10 performances a year. I loved being able to play in the ensemble with other talented and passionate student musicians to create a truly unique product. We played a variety of classical and baroque music along with some traditional Celtic and some contemporary pieces. My favorite piece of ours is Balthasar Vilicus’s Concerto in G Major because as far as I know, no one else has played it in years—the only Vilicus sheet music readily available on the internet is a scan of one of his original compositions from the 17th century!
I was also an Admission Ambassador, a Peer Tutor, and member of the History Society.

Q: So what are your plans for post-graduation?

A: I am currently working at the Moffatt-Ladd House, the Portsmouth home of William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Prince Whipple and Winsor Moffatt, signers of the Petition of Freedom. I’ve learned a lot already, and it’s great to be able to incorporate local history into the national narratives that we all know. I have a few other applications out, and I am going to continue to work on my oral history project. The long-term goal is probably to go to grad school—I want to spend time further researching topics related to my thesis and oral history project—they are under-researched fields that I hope I can somehow contribute to.

Q: You seem to have really gotten a lot from your history major and your time on the Hilltop. Do you have any advice for current and future history majors?

A: Don’t be afraid to be curious and ask questions—that’s why I was a history major, because I wanted to know and understand as much as possible. Asking questions allows you to make deeper connections, and that’s what history is all about. Don’t put each class in a vacuum—make sure you connect the events and ideas you are studying to those of other classes. Not only will this help you take comps, but, with any luck and a lot of hard work, the world will make more sense than it did before.