A Whig history of Brexit would be a good idea

There is always a great deal of squabbling over who the true heir is. Pretenders to a successful leader will always want to inherit legitimacy, while critics will draw unflattering comparisons with less fondly remembered predecessors.

Selectively reading history is thus an inevitable part of politics. But while readers will be familiar with debates over whether Donald Trump is a literally Hitler, a more obscure quarrel has begun in the British press about whether leavers or remainers are the real Whigs.

‘Whig’ is a less familiar term to most people than that of their historic ‘Tory’ rivals. The term has various uses, but notably covered those who opposed absolute monarchy in Britain during the 17th century. Despite being linked to what became the Liberal Party, the nickname hasn’t stuck around like ‘Tories’ did for conservatives.

Perhaps better known is the concept of ‘whig history’, which is often used to criticise histories that assume an inevitable outcome. A modern example would be Francis Fukuyama’s assumption that after the collapse of the Soviet Union all countries would eventually become liberal democracies.

The recent dispute ties accusations of sloppy history with familiar debates around Brexit, centring on the historian Robert Tombs, author of The English and Their History. In a new book, This Sovereign Isle, Tombs examines the British decision to leave the European Union, which he vocally backed as an editor of commentary website Briefing for Britain.

James Hawes, author of The Shortest History of England, had mixed feelings about the book. Writing in the Spectator, he accused Tombs of re-litigating the Brexit campaign and scorning remainers, rather than providing a sober historical overview.

For the Hayekian Tendency, this war is far from over. The tumbrils are being readied. We need, says Tombs, all mild sagacity, to unite, so that ‘in a few years the new generation will wonder why people got so worked up’.

More damningly, Hawes also accuses Tombs of engaging in whiggish analysis:

In 2021, now the public Brexiteer academic, [Tombs] embraces that Whig history, suggesting parallels between brave Leavers and ‘the Glorious Revolution of 1688’ which involved ‘meetings of citizens, sometimes bearing arms, ready to enforce the popular will’.

This irked UnHerd associate editor Peter Franklin. He argues that the EU’s ambition of “building a superstate from the top-down, severed from any living national tradition” is what’s cold and whiggish.

Given the subject matter, perhaps such disputes can only be solved with pistols at dawn. But as Franklin also points out, you should be wary of couching things in anachronistic terms. “The last examples” of Whigs and Tories in the original sense “both died a long time ago”, he says, rightly.

Even so, tracing the faultlines of contemporary British politics through history will always be a useful exercise. Hawes himself noted the long-standing division in England between North and South in a podcast late last year. In the United States, the location of slave plantations has been linked to modern voting patterns as well.

We therefore should argue about whether remainers or leavers are more closely comparable to the Whigs and Tories of yesteryear. Such analogies will always have limits. But at least this way we won’t be arguing about who is literally Hitler.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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