Old Man in A Hurry

Richard Toye
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History

Felix Klos, Churchill’s Last Stand: The Struggle to Unite Europe (I.B.Tauris, 2017)

Marco Duranti, The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention (Oxford University Press, 2017)

In the run-up to 2016 Brexit referendum, advocates of staying in the EU made significant efforts to invoke the memory of Winston Churchill. Remainers pointed to the fact that, in Zurich in 1946, he had urged the creation of ‘a kind of United States of Europe’. They seemed to regard him as something of a trump card – if Britain’s iconic wartime leader had been one of the fathers of the EU, who would dare to be against? However, as a persuasive tool, it never quite seemed to work. On the one hand, Leavers could legitimately point out that Churchill had said that Great Britain should be one of the ‘the friends and sponsors of the new Europe’, not one of its actual members. On the other hand, the message was just not quite simple enough; against the ingrained, popular bulldog image, it was tough to sell Churchill as a complex figure who was prepared to make concessions on British sovereignty in the interests of future peace.

It also didn’t help that Churchill’s pro-European campaign took place during a period of his life – the 1945-51 Opposition years – that few members of the public know much about. Popular memory of Churchill focuses to some extent on the 1930s but above all on the war years, and the summer of 1940 in particular. In fact, then, the referendum campaign’s most rhetorically effective invocation of Churchill was made by David Cameron during his appearance on Question Time. He did not attempt to argue that Churchill would have favoured membership of the EU as such, but rather – in response to an audience member who described him (Cameron) as a Twenty First Century Neville Chamberlain – he deployed a more emotionally powerful response:

At my office I sit two yards away from cabinet room where Winston Churchill decided in May to fight on against Hitler. The best and greatest decision perhaps anyone has made in our country. He didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be fighting with the French, the Poles and the others. But he didn’t quit. He didn’t quit on democracy, he didn’t quit on freedom.

We want to fight for those things today. You can’t win if you’re not in the room.

Moreover, when one actually looks at the details of Churchill’s position on Europe, it’s not clear that he fits neatly into either the Leave or the Remain narrative. The two books under review, both excellent in their different ways, illustrate the point. Continue reading “Old Man in A Hurry”

The politics of buying British: From the Great Depression to Brexit

Sydney empire shopping week poster, 1928

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Since the Brexit vote the ‘Anglosphere’ has featured prominently in debates about the UK’s future trade strategy. It may seem odd that the CANZUK countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have featured so prominently in these discussions. After all, combined together these countries accounted for less than four percent of UK exports in 2017. While Brexiteers may talk wistfully of reviving trade with these ‘old friends’, their efforts build on a problematic historical legacy.

In the 1920s and 1930s various efforts were made to encourage consumers to support trade between ‘British’ countries, based on ties of race. This was only one of a range of attempts to promote ethnically-based trade communities. For example, rival Buy Indian and Buy Chinese movements connected diaspora populations across the British Empire. At much the same time, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association promoted the idea of ‘buying black’, a cause which was subsequently adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.

The practice of running empire shopping weeks was started by the British Women’s Patriotic League in 1923, and subsequently endorsed in the UK by the government-sponsored Empire Marketing Board. Shoppers were encouraged to exercise a voluntary preference for national and imperial goods. The shopping week movement extended into Australia in 1925, and reached Canada and South Africa in 1928. However, the language of empire shopping varied significantly between countries. Within the UK and Australia there was much focus on promoting links across the ‘British’ race at home and overseas. However, the question of the ‘British’ character of empire shopping proved more controversial in Canada, with its large French-speaking Québecois population, and in South Africa, where Afrikaners outnumbered the descendants of British settlers. Continue reading “The politics of buying British: From the Great Depression to Brexit”

Britain’s imperial ghosts have taken control of Brexit

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Marc-William Palen
University of Exeter

As long as Theresa May’s Conservative government is representing the UK at the Brexit negotiating table, Britain’s imperial past will continue to haunt its European withdrawal. The ghost that looms largest is none other than the prime minister’s “political hero” and “new lodestar”, Birmingham’s turn-of-the-century imperial protectionist, Joseph Chamberlain.

Like the early 20th century that Chamberlain lived in, the world has witnessed a resurgence of economic nationalism since the 2007 to 2009 recession. Britain, through Brexit, is leading this retreat from economic globalisation. The May government’s proposal to pursue an economic plan of “Britain for the British” after Brexit harkens back to Chamberlain’s bygone imperial age of Tory protectionism. Continue reading “Britain’s imperial ghosts have taken control of Brexit”

Commonwealth Trade after Brexit: historical reflections

Update: Due to unforeseen circumstances, this event has been postponed (TBA).

Commonwealth Trade after Brexit: historical reflections

History & Policy‘s Global Economics and History Forum


Event Details

Based on historical experiences, what economic opportunities might the Commonwealth of Nations offer a post-Brexit Britain?

As the UK seeks a new place in the global economy post-Brexit, the Commonwealth of Nations is often touted as a possible alternative. In a week in which Commonwealth leaders meet the Commonwealth Trade Conference, historians, policy makers and other experts meet to consider the potential of Commonwealth economic relations in historical perspective.

CHAIR: Dr Marc-William Palen, Lecturer, University of Exeter and Co-director, Global Economics and History Forum (History & Policy)


Tim Hewish, Director of Policy & Research, The Royal Commonwealth Society and Co-Founder, Commonwealth Exchange

Dr Surender Munjal, Director, James E. Lynch India and South Asia Business Centre, University of Leeds

Dr Andrew Dilley, Senior Lecturer, University of Aberdeen and Co-director, Global Economics and History Forum (History & Policy)


Do you have questions about Commonwealth Trade after Brexit: historical reflections? Contact History & Policy

Update: Due to unforeseen circumstances, this event has been postponed (TBA).

Brexit and food prices: the legacy of the Hungry Forties

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Cross-posted from History & Policy

Places are limited and RSVP is essential. Please book your place here.

Plenty of attention is being paid to the political and constitutional effects of Brexit, but what will its economic impact be on life’s most basic commodities? How did food prices inform the debate in the weeks and months leading up to the referendum, and how have they informed debate in the past? How have the spectres of want and hunger been invoked over the last century and a half in political contexts, and are we paying them enough attention now?

Debating these questions will be five historians and policy makers with combined expertise covering the period since the 1840s, the “Hungry Forties,” which live in political memory as the UK’s last serious sustained period of food poverty. The discussion is aimed at policy makers and practitioners working in the area of food poverty and food security, and aims to show how lessons from the past can inform decision-making today. Continue reading “Brexit and food prices: the legacy of the Hungry Forties”

Brexit, the American Revolution, and the Problem with ‘Independence Day’


Simon Hill
University of Chester

On Thursday 23 June 2016 the British electorate voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union (EU). On election night the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage declared this to be Britain’s ‘independence day.’ With ‘independence day’ on pro-Brexit lips, US pundits have been quick to connect 2016 with 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski, for example, was among the first ‘to welcome the mother country to our revolution.’ And, in a similar act of transatlantic camaraderie, the Republican magazine National Review has accordingly rebranded the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence as ‘Amerexit.’

Critics have since been quick to point out some of the big historical problems with proclaiming the 23rd June as Britain’s ‘independence day’, including the common association between it and the outbreak of the American Revolution. And of course it’s worth noting that the EU referendum vote and the American Revolution (1775-1783) have obvious differences, not least that in the former the question of independence was settled by the ballot box, whilst in the latter it was decided by the barrel of a gun. Nevertheless, let’s assume for the moment that there are some useful comparisons to be drawn between the American Revolution and Brexit. If so, is 1776 the ideal date for comparison, as many pundits have recently suggested? I would suggest instead that events during the latter years of the American Revolution share far more in common with today. Continue reading “Brexit, the American Revolution, and the Problem with ‘Independence Day’”

Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History

Lord Palmerston Addressing the House of Commons During the Debates on the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty in February 1860, as painted by John Phillip (1863).
Palmerston before the House of Commons amid the Debates on the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty in February 1860. Painting by John Phillip (1863).

Anthony Howe
University of East Anglia

Amid much discussion of alternatives to Britain’s current relationship with Europe, the Canadian, Norwegian, and Swiss models have featured widely. But surprisingly little attention has been paid to the closest historical model of what Brexiteers might hail as ‘a free trade Europe’.[1]

The first version of a ‘common market’ based on free trade treaties was created in Europe in the 1860s. Following the signing of the 1860 Anglo-French (Cobden-Chevalier) commercial treaty, a further 50-60 interlocking trade treaties were negotiated between European states, in effect creating a free trade area, the closest Europe got to a single market before the 1970s.

The economic benefits of this first common market are still contested by economic historians, but, as a model of a loose institutional framework it successfully lowered tariffs between participating states (only Russia of major European states remained outside it).

And at first glance this treaty network appears remarkably similar to the goals of those wishing to avoid a European super state in favour of simpler trade-based relationships. However, the fate of this model should be less than encouraging for the Leave campaign. Continue reading “Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History”