After Brexit, Whither or Wither British History?


Dane Kennedy recently wrote an essay in Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, in which he analyzes the impact that Brexit will exert on the study British history.

In his survey of the field, Kennedy reaches two main conclusions. First, Brexit may make British history obsolete. The Brexit vote exposed important national divisions within Britain; England and Wales voted to leave the European Union, while Scotland, and to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland, sought to remain. The outcome of the referendum may only exacerbate these divisions. The Scottish National Party, which committed itself to the “Remain” campaign, is already weighing the wisdom of holding another Scottish independence referendum (the last one, held in 2014, was defeated 55% to 45%). By complicating relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Brexit paradoxically makes it more likely that the two will increasingly draw closer in an attempt to safeguard their common interests (e.g. stabilization and peace in the region). Should Britain begin to disintegrate, Kennedy asserts, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will increasingly focus on their own histories rather than a common British one.

Second, Brexit will undermine the precarious position of British history in the United States.  As Kennedy points out, up until the 1970s and 1980s, every history department in the United States believed it needed at least one British historian. This belief stemmed partly from a sense that America owed a great deal to its British inheritance, partly from a Cold War Atlanticist attitude that saw Britain as America’s closest ally, and partly from the “Eurocentric orientation of the historical profession itself.” However, starting in the 1990s, in an attempt to diversify their offerings, departments began to hire historians who studied previously neglected areas, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As Kennedy puts it, “in the zero-sum game that characterized academic hiring in those financially straitened times, the number of British history positions declined.” And this number continues to decline today. As academic history in the United States became more diverse and global in outlook, the only factor that helped sustain British history was is its connection to empire. In other words, British history has remained interesting to the profession insofar as it is integrated into world history. For this reason, Kennedy argues that since Brexit “marks Britain’s retreat from the world around it,” academic historians will increasingly lose interest in that country with effects that are “detrimental to British history’s survival as a field of study in the United States.”

Much of what Kennedy writes makes a great deal of sense. For sure, as Kennedy puts it, “while Britain’s post-Brexit future may not change the facts about history, it will change how we view that history and what significance we draw from it.” Here Kennedy reminds us of the extent to which contemporary concerns and events shape our study of the past. If One Thing after Another has quibbles with Kennedy on anything, it is in the claim that Brexit is a major turning point that represents a retreat from the world. Such a statement seems like an oversimplification. Instead of representing a sudden break in the course of events, Brexit is part of a long saga in which Britain has sought to manage its relationship with the rest of the world and particularly Europe. It is worth pointing out that well before a slight majority of Britons voted to leave the EU, Britain had already opted out of a number of important EU polices: the Economic and Monetary Union, the Schengen Agreement, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and the AFSJ (Area of Freedom, Security, and Justice). In other words, Britain has long experienced reservations about political integration with the EU. Brexit was the triumph, then, of anti-EU feeling that had existed for some time. To say that Brexit represents a sudden retreat from the world, then, is only partially right. For sure, many voters and politicians who supported the “Leave” campaign felt that political integration with the EU exposed Britain to various elements of globalization that were intolerable (e.g. free movements of peoples). However, a distaste for political integration with the EU (and its consequences) is not necessarily tantamount to shutting oneself off from the world; there is more than one way to to engage with the global economy. Even the most obtuse of the Brexiteers understand that a country with the world’s fifth-largest economy (now possibly sixth-largest with the falling of the pound) simply cannot embrace some type of autarky, especially when exports account for almost 30% of GDP. Enthusiasm for a soft Brexit and bilateral agreements with other nations, unrealistic as these prospects might be, indicate that Britons still wish to relate to the rest of the world—but on their own terms. One Thing after Another does not claim that Brexit was a good idea, that the leaders of the Brexit campaign were models of prudence, or that those who voted “Leave” acted from the best of motives. Rather, this blog argues that Brexit is perhaps not the turning point it has been made out to be. If such is the case, then its impact on British history might be somewhat muted.

Toward the end of his essay, Kennedy expresses skepticism that Britain’s significance at the height of empire will sustain the interest of historians in future years. After all, he points out, the Mongols exerted enormous influence in the past, but there is no great demand for historians of this people. One Thing after Another begs to differ. As Christopher Bayly (a leading scholar of imperial and world history) argued in The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, Britain was an “exemplar and controller” of modernity. In other words, starting in the late 18th century and continuing well into the next, Britain played a crucial role in propagating the globalization on which it has ostensibly turned its back. We no longer live in a British century, but we live in a world that Britain helped make. That achievement will help ensure its continued historical relevance for some time to come.


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