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”

Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia

Printed the day after France requested armistice terms from Germany, a celebration of Britain's 'lonely' wartime defiance.  Evening Standard (18 June 1940).
Printed the day after France requested armistice terms from Germany, a celebration of Britain’s ‘lonely’ wartime defiance. Evening Standard (18 June 1940).

Rachel Chin
University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @chinra4

Billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves recently claimed that leaving the EU could be likened to the British evacuation from Dunkirk in late May 1940. This withdrawal signalled the British retreat from the continent and immediately preceded the French capitulation to German forces two weeks later. Hargreaves declared, “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again.”[1]

As a scholar of rhetoric and the Second World War, I have become particularly attuned to how conflict is used and abused by politicians as a means to convince the British public of the value of a particular issue. Most recently, Tory politicians and campaigners like Hargreaves have mobilised Britain’s role in the Second World War as a justification to vote either for or against staying in the European Union (EU). This type of rhetoric is, at its core, emotive and nostalgic. It’s also deeply troubling because such oversimplified ideas of national identity and wartime patriotism are circumventing any chance of having a meaningful discussion about how Brexit would or would not change life on this island nation. It also ignores the fact that the Second World War was a global conflict, however much that might challenge ingrained nationalistic nostalgia. Continue reading “Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia”