How are we to understand all the arguments surrounding the 2016 referendum?
On Thursday 28 February, the International History Department hosted its Annual Lecture. This year Professor Anne Deighton (Oxford University) spoke on the topic of "‘Breaking Up is So Very Hard to Do': Britain and the EU". The event explored how we should understand the 2016 Referendum vote to leave the European Union through the use of a historical perspective.
Starting with the assumption that Brexit is not explainable through monocausal reasoning, Professor Deighton argued that a significant guiding concept for Britain over time in the country's foreign relations is leadership. This desire to lead other nations, both those in and outside the EU, according to Professor Deighton, helps explain the political outcome of the referendum vote, as this continues to effect Britain in her relations towards Europe today. Stemming from the 1950s, this desire to lead acted as a partial replacement for empire in the era of decolonisation. Winston Churchill, UK Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955, envisioned Britain as being in the middle of three interlocking circles: between the US; Europe and the Commonwealth. In Professor Deighton’s perspective, this conception became ingrained in British collective memory and culture, and remains influential in the politics of today.
In this context, the 1950s were highly significant in moulding Britain’s relationship towards Europe. Whilst some historians identify 1957 as the most significant year in this decade due to the creation of the European Community, Professor Deighton diverged in arguing that 1950 was the most significant year in forming this relationship. She reasoned that this was because the Schuman Declaration of May 1950 marked the beginning of supranational Western integration, whilst it was also the most demanding moment for the peacetime regime as ideas were being formed on a new global international order in the aim to stop another European war occurring. Yet Britain in 1950, in comparison to France, did not fully engage with this project; thus, Britain never found her desired place in the centre of those 3 circles. Professor Deighton cited Margaret Macmillan in stating that this created "foggy memories of past grandeur." Ultimately, Professor Deighton concluded, these ideas of leadership still held by some political elites are now deluded.
Professor Anne Deighton Emerita Professor of European International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, and is also a member of the University’s Faculty of History. She is a fellow of Wolfson College.
Professor Matthew Jones is Professor of International History and Head of the Department of International History at LSE.
The Department of International History (@lsehistory) teaches and conducts research on the international history of Britain, Europe and the world from the early modern era up to the present day.