Claims about Britain’s past are made regularly in the referedum debate. But claims about Britain’s historical place in the world – courageously standing alone, being outnumbered and outgunned but in the end outperforming everyone – are not based on fact, writes Mike Finn. These myths could nonetheless have very real consequences: this is the self-image that the Brexit campaign portray and which many think they will revive by voting to Leave.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Michael Gove, who as former Education Secretary trumpeted the virtues of ‘our island story’ in the history curriculum, should have emerged as a leader of the Brexit campaign. Nor is it surprising that Boris Johnson, who penned a book to situate himself in comparison with Winston Churchill, should do the same. Both consider themselves to be historians of sorts, articulating Britain’s place in the world in historical terms. But the visions of Britain’s past they draw on are rooted in myth, not history, and this has implications for the decision they are asking us to take.
The ‘standing alone’ myth
For Gove and Johnson, Britain is the nation who stood alone in 1940, a great nation, heir to Anglo-Saxon culture and ‘first in the world for soft power’, owing to Britain’s supposed ‘invention’ of representative democracy. For Johnson, Churchill was a man of ‘vast and almost reckless moral courage’, the encapsulation of all that is good about Britain, not least British pluck. As Gove puts it, those who believe that the prospect of Brexit is a terrible idea are actually arguing that Britain is ‘too small and too weak…to succeed without Jean-Claude Juncker looking after us.’ Johnson went further, comparing the European project to Hitler’s attempt at territorial domination. Both agree that, as in 1940, Britain can, and should, stand alone.