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On 25 May I was one of 300 signatories of a letter from UK historians arguing that Britain ought to remain in the European Union. The campaign ‘Historians for Britain in Europe’ was set up to counter the historiographical arguments being advanced by ‘Historians for Britain’, which emerged in January 2016 and claims that we can learn from Britain’s history that our future does not lie in the European Union. I can understand why the deployment of historiography in the service of politics, on both sides, has annoyed some people. However, I believe we have reached a point at which the debate on Britain’s EU membership has transcended the usual politics we experience in this country; people are not divided along party or even ideological lines on this issue. As a Remain campaigner, I have found myself rubbing shoulders with many who certainly do not share my political views, to both left and right, and many who are active participants in the campaign are not members or supporters of political parties. Furthermore, the case of Historians for Britain in Europe is grounded not just in historiography but in the fact that our universities benefit immeasurably from the free movement of people and their right of residence within the EU – meaning that EU nationals can live and work in this country teaching history and enriching the experience and knowledge of students and colleagues alike. Britain’s membership of the EU means that European history can be taught by Continental Europeans, with access to European languages and European sources, who frequently challenge British historical perceptions of ourselves and our neighbours.
Many attempts have been made to bring the nations of Europe closer together since 1815; none of them have been as successful, and not one of them has been as peaceful, as the project of the European Union. As an historian whose knowledge becomes shaky after 1829, I am perhaps not best placed to argue for the EU on the grounds of an analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history. It is easy to get bogged down in detailed claims and counterclaims about counterfactual post-referendum scenarios, and this campaign has showed us that such techniques seem to make little impact on voters. As Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has pointed out, the referendum debate is really about the kind of country we want to be, and the kind of country we want to be perceived to be. As a historian of a marginalised group within British society – English Catholics – I am very well aware of the cultural and political importance of a people’s self-perception on a national and international level. Catholics suffered in England for 300 years because their existence challenged the self-perception of the English nation at large as a godly, Protestant commonwealth. For centuries, the British government was unable to bring itself even to admit that Catholic bishops existed on its territory; and as late as 1850, the idea of Catholic bishops naming their sees after British cities was greeted with horror and disbelief. Huge swathes of the English establishment lived in denial of the idea that English Catholics existed – because Catholics were, by definition, foreign.
Put another way, Catholics were a minority group who, in spite of being English, suffered as a result of a national climate of government-sponsored xenophobia. This was particularly true at the time of the Spanish Armada, when the government assumed that English Catholics were likely to support a Spanish invasion – simply because the Spanish were also Catholics. The parallels with the situation of British Muslims today are striking and chilling; a climate of national xenophobia always fosters hatred towards minorities within our midst, whether they are citizens or not. I acknowledge that many Leave supporters are sincere and well-intentioned – some of them may even genuinely believe that leaving the EU will create a fairer immigration system. It is not these people I fear but others who vote Leave in the hope that the restriction of EU migration will lead to other changes; I fear the backlash against politicians when many Leave voters realise that leaving the EU does not mean a ‘white Britain’ policy; and I fear the inevitable marginalisation of minorities that accompanies escalating anti-immigration rhetoric.
The historical study of religious minorities in the UK may seem to many a recondite preoccupation with past intolerance that is long forgotten – after all, Catholics are virtually part of the establishment these days. This is not so; the journey of Catholics towards toleration was slow and tortuous, and studying it can help us understand the dynamics of how toleration happens and how societies need to change to make it both possible and widely acceptable. Toleration is not a fait accompli that can be accomplished with a flourish of legislation; we always need to be on our guard against a slide back into intolerance, and that is why we need continually to be reminded that Britain has not always been the tolerant country it is today. Catholicism has enjoyed full legal toleration in this country since 1829, but the death of anti-Catholicism has taken a great deal longer, and the corpse still gives the occasional twitch. Making a tolerant society is a difficult and time-consuming business; English Catholics know that it takes centuries. And it is likely that toleration of English Catholics would never have happened without the weight of Irish Catholic pressure; English Catholics thinking of voting Leave should remember that Ireland’s economy and Ireland’s peace will be imperilled by Brexit. Irish political pressure and Irish migration have saved the Catholic Church in England more than once, and it would be deplorable if Ireland were to suffer once again from the pretensions of British nationalists.
Whatever happens in the referendum, the Leave campaign has a great deal to answer for in unravelling – consciously or unconsciously – the slow work of tolerance in Britain. The politics of Leave is the politics of Titus Oates, the ‘great-mouthed liar’ who hated Charles II’s Portuguese queen and Charles’ alliances European Catholic countries. Oates made a scapegoat of English Catholics, and the deadly consequences lasted for years. The events of 1678-1681 show clearly the power of lies to overcome facts, and the potential of national anxiety about Britain’s place in the world to turn into murderous hatred against minorities. Let’s learn from history: vote Remain.