The Shadow of Brexit

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student George Morris (Cambridge) who discusses the ‘shadow of Brexit’ which hung over the conference.

The shadow of Brexit hung over KCBH. Over a year on from the June 2016 referendum, academics, like politicians, journalists and the population as a whole, are still scratching their heads. Every discussion I attended at KCBH inevitably referenced Brexit, whether in light of Nairn-Anderson or declinism, Beveridge or permissiveness. How do we do contemporary history in the context of the current crisis, which few of us expected, and which seems to have drastically altered the course of the history we seek to write? If unfolding events alter the stories we tell about ourselves, Brexit may well be an important historiographical, as well as political and cultural, juncture.

Anthony Seldon spoke about the lack of knowledge of contemporary British history among politicians and the media in his opening remarks, and nowhere has this been more visible in recent years than during the referendum campaign. One of the most commonly deployed historical analogies in the campaign was to the Reformation, the five-hundredth anniversary of which has been celebrated this year. Such comparisons are uncomfortably reliant on an idea of an immutable national identity – implicitly English, (Protestant) Christian, vaguely nationalist and politely parochial. Examination of the ways in which this narrative was itself historically rooted, and perhaps not particularly good history, was overlooked. Newspaper editors show significantly less incredulity towards metanarratives than do historians.

It seems likely that our understanding of what is happening is hampered if we do not reflect critically on the role that our universities play in reinforcing cultural inequality in contemporary Britain. Hostility to experts is not necessarily the sign of a vulgar anti-intellectualism, but may well reflect a very realistic understanding of inequalities in what those experts might call cultural capital. That experts seem to be drawn from a rather narrow strata of schools and universities, that they often look and sound alike, and that they live in the same places and move in the same circles, cannot but reinforce the suspicion that who is sanctioned as an expert is a question of caste rather than real qualification.

This is not to say that we should start ignoring experts; as several speakers at KCBH pointed out, historians – experts on history – clearly have an important role to play in helping us make sense of the current crisis. But the reasons the current crisis faces us with such difficulty may be similar to the reasons for the disenchantment with experts. Thinking about how we acquire, distribute and think about expertise has never been more important.

KCBH’s willingness to innovate not just in the types of questions we ask, but also in the ways in which we ask them, is therefore refreshing in the current context. Making sense of contemporary British history requires us to think again about our place within it, not in terms of the self-hatred of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, but in understanding that the current crisis asks us not just to think about how we do contemporary British history, but also what we do when we do it.

George Morris is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, and a commissioning editor for Renewal: a journal of social democracy.

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