Brexit through the lens of British history

Classics  Ian Morris sees reflections of British history over the centuries in t

Classics Ian Morris sees reflections of British history over the centuries in today’s Brexit debate. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford’s Ian Morris says the issues that led to Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, have come up throughout British history, since rising sea levels separated the country from the continent 8,000 years ago.

Brexit and the concerns of the people who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union are hardly new to the larger story of Britain, says Stanford scholar Ian Morris.

Since sea levels rose and split the British Isles from mainland Europe about 8,000 years ago, the British people have faced a recurring set of questions over their identity and sovereignty - the same issues that led a majority of Britons to vote for withdrawing the U.K.’s membership in the European Union in 2016, Morris said.

Here, Morris draws parallels between today and Britain’s past. He argues the country has already had a "Brexit" when the Roman Empire’s rule ended in the fifth century - a piece of history that lends itself to today’s discussion about trade and the economy between Britain and the rest of the world. While the British were able to disconnect themselves from the rest of Europe in the past, seeking isolation in today’s globalized world is increasingly moot, Morris argues.

Morris, the Jean and Rebecca Willard Endowed Professor in Classics in the School of Humanities and Sciences , began his career as an archaeologist and historian of ancient Greece. In recent years he has explored big-picture issues, such as what drives the evolution of civilizations.

In his forthcoming book, Morris applies his broad approach to 8,000 years of British history to offer readers context for the challenges the country faces today as it prepares to leave the EU.

How do you see what’s happening with Brexit reflected in the larger history of Britain that you examined?

Over the past two and a half years, I looked closely at the types of arguments made in the Brexit debate. I asked: What did people say actually mattered to them? It seemed like five major themes kept coming up: identity, mobility, prosperity, security and sovereignty. These five themes covered the great bulk of talking points on both proand anti-Brexit sides. People were treating these as moral, ideological issues. It wasn’t just, "Who are we the people of the British Isles?" But also, "What kind of people should we be?"

What struck me is that these are the exact same questions people were arguing over 2,000 years ago.

The questions of identity, mobility, prosperity, security and sovereignty are already there when Roman historian Tacitus writes about the conquest of the British in his book Agricola , written around the year 98. This was a biography of Tacitus’ father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who was the general in charge of the conquest. In one passage, Tacitus reflects on how his father-in-law was able to appease the British after conquering them. He started building baths and opening up Roman institutions to British chiefs. He allowed the British to feel that they are becoming part of this larger, better, more prosperous Roman world. But, said Tacitus, "although the unsuspecting Britons called these novelties civilization, they were in fact just part of their enslavement." He argues that the British found themselves giving up their identity and sovereignty to get the prosperity, security and mobility the Romans provided.

Are we getting a good deal on trading away our sovereignty and identity? That’s the question that every nation, including Britain, has had to consider again and again throughout history.

How has Britain’s relationship changed with Europe over time?

What makes the British story unique is its geography. It’s a group of large islands that are very close, but not connected, to the European mainland.

Up until the 1500s, much of the British story has been about being, for all practical purposes, on the edge of the world. The British people had to constantly figure out how to deal with ideas and invaders coming from continental Europe. This included the rule of the Roman Empire, which lasted from the end of the first century until the fifth century, and the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century.

A big shift happened in the 1600s. As people built more reliable ships that could cross large bodies of water, Britain became well-placed in the developing world around the Atlantic Ocean. The English government was able to organize its navy to close the English Channel, cutting itself off from the European continent. This control of the channel was used as a way to set terms of the British relationship with the rest of Europe.

This piece of history resonates with today’s discussions over Brexit. Some people say Britain is trying to repeat its past and cut itself from Europe to try to become a first-rate global power again.

But the world has changed since the 17th century and the geography that once made Britain special doesn’t matter as much today. The long-term trend that has underpinned humanity’s history for the past hundreds of thousands of years has been globalization. So, pursuing isolation policies today won’t work, and I think it will only hurt the country in the long term.

What inspired you to examine British history over the past 8,000 years and how it relates to Brexit?

I was surprised, like many others, by the results of the vote in 2016 and I wanted to understand how the British electorate made the decision they did.

I’m originally from Stoke-on-Trent, England, a city dubbed as the Brexit capital, where 69 percent of people voted to leave the European Union in 2016. It’s in some ways a town that time forgot. It was one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century and a great amount of wealth was produced there. But it never became a global city in the way that places tied to the international flow of labor did, such as London, Liverpool and Bristol, over the past 150 years.

The town’s economy has eroded over time. Today there is a strong sense among the people there that the white British identity is under attack from the outside and that Britain gave away too much of its sovereignty to Europeans when it joined the EU. And it’s not the first time this kind of thinking has gained traction in England. Back in the 17th century, rather similar fears that the country’s kings were bargaining away ordinary folks’ Protestant identity to corrupt continental Catholics was one of the major forces that drove England into civil war.

What are some important takeaways from the British history that people should understand today?

The lessons of history work at a rather high level of abstraction. You don’t get yes or no answers from history to questions like "Should we impose tariffs on country X?" or "Should we build a wall on border Y?" Instead, you get a sense of what kinds of questions you should be asking and what the range of plausible answers might be. Looking at the end of Roman Britain or the 17th century doesn’t tell us what’s going to happen exactly to the British economy in the 21st century when it eventually separates from the European Union. But it does tell us what sort of things we need to look at to understand the issues at hand.

For example, one thing we need to understand is how Britain interlocks with the other actors on its stage. In the fifth century, Britain’s economy fell off the cliff when it left the Roman Empire. But that happened because it depended entirely on the Roman Empire for its security, and once that was taken away, the country went into free fall.

Thinking about Brexit today, we have to ask: Who are Britain’s security and trading partners’ What will retreating from Europe mean for relationships with the U.S. and China? If breaking from the European Union means a catastrophic collapse in trade with the continent, are the things Britain gets in return better than what it loses by pulling out?


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